"They are hyphenated records. Rose-hyphen-Cobb, Aaron-hyphen-Ruth, Ripken-hyphen-Gehrig," Sugar said. "They are all shooting for that Everest, and that's what Ripken did. He climbed Everest, and the Everest happened to be Lou Gehrig."

The record also hasn't taken a loftier place in history, Sugar said, because it was a mark of endurance, not performance. It is to be admired, but the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa is what truly captivated this generation's fans.

"[Baseball] sells home runs the way the NBA sells slam-dunks," Sugar said. "Cal Ripken stood for consistency, but I don't think anyone in this generation cares about consistency. They are looking for wham, bam, thank you, ma'ams."

Sugar said young sports fans accept steroids use in baseball and, for them, it doesn't sully the record-breaking accomplishments of McGwire or Barry Bonds.

"I don't think in the minds of young people it will be in any way tainted," he said. "I think this will just be the steroid era. There was the live-ball era, the dead-ball era and now there will be a steroid era."

So Ripken's achievements don't take on a higher sense of purpose because of the steroids controversy, according to Sugar.

Halberstam said comparing Ripken's record to the home run chase is "apples for oranges there. I don't want to make that connection."

Costas: genuine plus
But Costas sees Ripken's record as a direct - and refreshing - contrast to other celebrated baseball moments that seem less genuine.

"It wasn't just all the positives [Sept. 6, 1995] represented, but it stood then - and even more now as you look back - in contrast to the crassness, the hype, the commercial exploitation and the lack of authenticity. It stood in contrast to all of that, which I think made it more appealing."

Plus, said Will, Ripken's is an unreachable milestone. The same can't confidently be said about the season home run record, which was eclipsed twice in three years.

"We saw [Roger] Maris' record not just broken but smashed. And then Bonds sails past McGwire, so the very idea of season hitting records looks less impressive," Will said. "No one is going to break Ripken's record. Ever.

"It's not happening again. That underscores how special it is."

Selig rates it high
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said his sport is extremely resilient, and it's an overstatement to suggest any one person or event could "save it." Still, Selig believes Ripken's record-breaker was "a very critical night in our history and Cal did it with so much class and dignity.

"The night itself had so much significance," Selig said. "For historians who will review this, as people are always doing with baseball, the night of Sept. 6, 1995, cannot be underestimated. People can read what they want to read into it, but it can never be underestimated."

Ultimately, the significance of Ripken's streak comes down to interpretation, point of view. What it means now is left to the individual.

But that evening's magic will live on forever for some, serving as the brightest of lights in a game that has experienced significant darkness in the past dozen years.

"I think that a lot of people look back on those days and say, 'Boy what's happened to baseball?' Every day there is this and that and the other. We say it ourselves," said Ripken's wife, Kelly. "But I do think that people really still value that moment in time as something very special and unique.

"In light of that, people think, 'What happened to guys like that?' Well, they are still there. They are just kind of being overshadowed by other things."