INCREDIBLY, people used to argue about whether Cal Ripken was a deserving Hall of Famer without the consecutive-games streak.
They don't anymore.
Ripken ended the debate by playing long enough and well enough to become the seventh player in major-league history to collect at least 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, a feat that, combined with his many awards, All-Star Game appearances and consistently superb play in the field, has made his trip to Cooperstown a certainty.
But let's be clear about something: Though he might deserve a place in the Hall of Fame because of everything else accomplished in his career, he is a first-ballot lock, perhaps with 100 percent of the vote, because of The Streak.
That's destined to be his primary contribution to the chronicle of baseball history dating to the 1800s, the element that defines him, elevates him and assures him of a special place even among the list of the game's greatest players.
Make no mistake, fans in Baltimore and across America didn't hail the Orioles' retiring star before every at-bat throughout the final months of his final season because he put up impressive offensive numbers over his 21-year career, played so well in the field for so long and redefined how a shortstop could be expected to perform.
The ovations that served as the soundtrack to Ripken's extended farewell tour were for The Streak and all it symbolizes to fans, as well as for the memory of the poignant night in September 1995 when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record at Camden Yards.
Without those career hallmarks - the night Gehrig's record fell and the record of 2,632 straight games played, likely never to be broken - Ripken would be Baltimore's version of Boston's Carl Yastrzemski or Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt: a wonderful, accomplished player who became a local legend while amassing Hall of Fame numbers during a long career.
But Ripken did play in every game for the Orioles for more than 16 straight seasons, and he did produce an unforgettable moment of legitimate history when baseball was at an ebb after the labor dispute that wiped out the 1994 World Series, and those accomplishments have made him more than just a local legend with Hall of Fame numbers.
Those accomplishments turned him into the figure every fan and opponent wanted to celebrate and congratulate in 2001.
Yes, his hands were soft and dependable in the field, but his hands didn't make him a legend.
Sure, his bat was consistently productive for a long time, but his bat didn't make him into current baseball's closest thing to a larger-than-life figure, along with slugger Mark McGwire.
It was his mental and physical toughness, his high pain threshold, his determination - the traits that enabled him to play in every game for so long.
It was his old-time essence, learned from his father and an early generation, an essence that predated the big money, selfishness and self-importance so prevalent in sports today.
It was his respect for the game, illuminated not just in his resolve to play every day, but also in his willingness to lay down his guard and connect with the fans through countless, impromptu autograph sessions and a youth league bearing his name.
His link with the fans, baseball's lifeblood, was never more clear than on the night of Sept. 6, 1995, when he broke Gehrig's record, circled Camden Yards on his victory tour and celebrated the moment with people in the stands, creating a feel-good visual baseball desperately needed in the wake of the 1994-1995 strike and lockout.
The sight struck an emotional chord with those who had grown tired of the isolated, off-putting elements in today's game, and Ripken's exalted standing was sealed.
Sports Illustrated recently labeled his consecutive-games record as the most overrated in all of sports, a point that, at the very least, is worthy of debate, seeing as how it doesn't directly relate to performance and winning.
But the game's fans and players couldn't disagree more, if the level of respect Ripken has received in recent months is any indication.
Any player at the end of a career headed for Cooperstown is applauded and honored, but the tribute for Ripken has gone beyond what would be considered routine.
The only appropriate conclusion is he represents something beyond the routine to countless fans, opponents and teammates.
Those in uniform respect him for having faithfully showed up to play for so many years, a fundamental, professional skill treated with great respect in the game's clubhouses, where so many punch a clock and find reasons not to play while getting paid.
And to those out of uniform? The ticket-buying public? It feels a kinship with a star who showed a burning respect for the notion of an honest day's work.
Whether Ripken actually was a throwback can be debated - he has made a lot of money via his contracts and various endorsements - but his respect for the game and its fans is undeniable.
The fans accordingly showed him their highest respect in the final months, building to the climax of the final pitches and images of his career.
He will go down in history as the first of the New Shortstops, a font of dependability, a credit to the game. But above all else, he will go down as the game's greatest iron man.
He chose that destiny, and now it is his.
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