Cal Ripken Jr. says someone could break his record. Consider these the words of Ripken's public persona, which he crafted with the precision of an X-Acto knife and maintains with such neutrality. No one loves a braggart, so Ripken tends to downplay the number, even if it will live on like a prehistoric artifact preserved in amber.
It still seems too big to fathom, doesn't it, the 2,632 consecutive games Ripken played? More than 16 straight seasons. The supermodel of sports records, something so unattainable that the thought of getting it prompts laughter.
There are the injuries, plus the travel, and the days where some rest would be nice, compounded by the fact that only tip-top play demands everyday inclusion, which means extra attention from the media – and the umpires, whose calls could lead to a suspension. Life intervenes, too. Kids get sick and pass it along. A relative dies.
So go streaks.
Which is why Sept. 6, 1995, seems so much more recent than a dozen years ago. The image of Ripken jogging in his Baltimore Orioles uniform around Camden Yards after having officially played in consecutive game No. 2,131 to break Lou Gehrig's record is iconic. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa may have saved baseball, but Cal Ripken Jr. gave it the first chest compressions and breaths.
"If I could do it, certainly someone else can," Ripken said via e-mail earlier this week from Cooperstown, N.Y. It's there, on Sunday, that his bust will join the other memorabilia from the streak already in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Surely the streak will play a prominent part of his speech, as it defines Ripken's career more than his two Most Valuable Player awards and his 431 home runs.
Without it, Ripken would have been an ordinary Hall of Famer. With it, he is so much more.
"It takes good genes and some luck and you need to be productive over a long period of time," he said, "but certainly it can be done.
"I am not Superman."
Actually, that might not be true.
At the Metrodome, 30 steps lead from the visitors' clubhouse to the field. As a parlor game, Ripken liked to see how many strides it would take to ascend the stairs. Legend says it was five, a record Ripken held until Brady Anderson conquered the stairs in the same fashion.
When Ripken found out Anderson matched him, he made it in four. "It’s true!" Ripken said. "I doubt I could do it now, though." So he leapt a tall building in four bounds.
Such was the Ripken ethos. It kept him in the lineup, even when his knee and back ached, which, Ripken now concedes, "seems pretty remarkable."
Really, it's part of owning a consecutive-games-played streak. One night in Detroit, the NHL's representative, Doug Jarvis, took a hit that knocked him unconscious. The next night, he played in St. Louis. A.C. Green, the NBA record holder, turned to prayer for clarity when injuries vexed him. And Jim Marshall, who set the NFL record with 282 straight games (and still owns it, if you exclude punter Jeff Feagles), once checked himself out of a hospital despite acute asthmatic bronchitis, played, then checked himself back in.
"You have a saying: Tape an Aspirin to it and it'll be OK," Marshall said. "You did whatever was necessary. You used a lot of tape, and you were back out there. It was a badge of courage to play injured."
Together, the four form a fraternity unlike any other in sports. They are the true warriors, their streaks a testament to dedication and a paean to luck, their intentions genuine and selfless.
"I wanted to play," said Jarvis, whose 964-game streak started in his first game and ended with his last. "I wanted to play every game because that's what I enjoyed doing. That was my passion. That was my job. I certainly wanted to be marked in that lineup every night."
On Nov. 20, 1997, Jarvis and Ripken got to discuss their streaks face to face in Dallas. They were there to celebrate Green setting the NBA record. The three celebrated into the night at Planet Hollywood, talking about life as an athlete, a family man and an Iron Man. And while Jarvis played the more physical sport and Green 1,192 straight times in the more athletic game, neither could fathom the amount of time Ripken spent on a baseball field: 2,632 straight games, the vast majority for nine innings, with an average of four at-bats and four defensive chances per game.
"Knowing they played twice as many games a year in a season as we did, I still get, like, a wow effect," Green said. "Getting up every day is a challenge when you get one day older. Just an everyday person. When you add a sport on to it, and the demands you're required to have on your body and your mind and your family, it's mind-boggling when I hear the number. Over 2,600."
A record worth celebrating.
"I'm extremely proud of what he's accomplished," Marshall said. "Anybody who has been involved in baseball would be extremely proud of what he's accomplished.
"When I watch it Sunday, there will be a tear in my eye."
A tear or two might slide down Ripken's cheek, too, when he talks about his father, Cal Sr. Perfect practice makes perfect, he taught his son. So Ripken made sure to pay attention to every minute detail, even wearing a watch during batting and infield practice so he could stay on schedule.
Teammates let him have it for that. Some things were uniquely Cal, and they understood that and let him be. Never was Ripken the rah-rah type. He defined his job early and didn't stray, not for 2,632 games.
"I believe that my approach was very pure: Show up ready to play and place yourself in the hands of the manager," Ripken said. "Frank Robinson handled the streak so well. He used to say that he liked the fact that every day he knew who was playing short and who was batting third. He didn’t need to come and ask me if I could play on any given night.
"He could count on me, and that was a great compliment to me."
On Sunday, the baseball world will pay Ripken the ultimate compliment. The ovation will thunder through the Adirondack air, and thousands of miles away Green, Jarvis and Marshall will clap along, knowing that 2,632 doesn't just seem too big to fathom. It is.
- Cal Ripken Jr