Mention the name Cal Ripken Jr., and one image immediately comes to mind: the victory lap around Camden Yards on Sept. 6, 1995, when he surpassed Lou Gehrig as baseball's all-time iron man and helped bring baseball back into American homes.
Ripken eventually played 2,632 consecutive games before ending The Streak in September 1998. He lasted three more seasons, compiled 3,184 total hits, 431 homers, 1,695 RBIs, won two Most Valuable Player awards and was named to the All-Star Game 19 times.
Yet, for many baseball fans, Ripken's career will always be about The Streak.
And that raises this question: If Ripken had taken off, say, five games a year, would he still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, as he is expected to be named today at 2 p.m.? The Sun asked Hall of Fame voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- and the overwhelming response was "Yes." Of the 169 members answering the question, 147 said Ripken merited consideration as a first-ballot inductee even if his consecutive-games streak had never existed.
"Ripken's numbers, with nearly 3,200 hits, would have been worth a vote even if he'd sat out 20 games a year with a migraine," Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Downey said. "I only need to think about Ripken's [qualifications] for as long as it takes to find my ballot and a pen."
John Perrotto of the Beaver County (Pa.) Times said: "He was one of the greatest shortstops in the history of baseball, and the consecutive-games streak is truly just the cherry on the top of the sundae."
Of the 22 respondents who didn't vote "Yes," the majority said, "Not sure" or a "I'd have to look at it further." No one offered "No" and an explanation.
Rick Carpiniello, columnist for The Journal News in the New York City suburbs, was one who said he'd have to look closer at Ripken if his candidacy were based solely on numbers.
"Without The Streak, I'd still say he's a Hall of Famer, although I don't think he was ever a more dominant player than, say, a Jim Rice or a Don Mattingly," Carpiniello said. "The Streak makes him a no-brainer."
For many voters, Ripken is one of those rare players whose impact on baseball transcended statistics. For instance, he proved that a big man -- Ripken was listed at 6 feet 4, 225 pounds -- could excel at shortstop, a position previously dominated by diminutive speedsters.
"Most baseball people say he redefined the [shortstop] position alone, into one where power became more important than your ability to do backflips," said Jeff Blair of the Toronto-based The Globe and Mail.
Then there was the way he played Gold Glove defense, relying on instincts more than speed.
"I do think he's the most underrated, great defensive player that I have ever covered," ESPN's Peter Gammons said, "in terms of understanding hitters, the relationship between pitchers and hitters, positioning, doing things right.
"The other thing that can't be underestimated is how he became such an icon, that he became the model for millions of kids in this country in how to play the game right, in how to do things right. That really stands for something."
As with any player, there are some chinks in Ripken's Hall of Fame armor.
He holds the major league mark for grounding into double plays. He batted just .167 in his lone World Series appearance (but .336 overall in six postseason series). And his lifetime batting average is .276, low for Hall of Fame standards.
"I know there are people that say, 'Oh, well, the batting average is not as high as it could be.' It doesn't matter," said Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, a former Sun columnist. "He was a great defensive player, an underappreciated defensive player, and his numbers offensively are worthy."
Granted, playing in 3,001 games, eighth all-time, helped him become one of only 26 major leaguers to collect 3,000 hits. But add in his power and he is one of just eight in history to have 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. And, for some, those numbers are more important than breaking Gehrig's record.
"I'm sure I'm in the tiny minority, but I'm not considering the record at all," said T.J. Quinn of the New York Daily News. "I think he makes it in because of 3,000 hits, 400-plus home runs for a guy who played shortstop for most of his career. ...
"Maybe he belongs in the Department of Labor Hall of Fame for that, but I don't see how anyone can make the case that The Streak was beneficial to him or the Orioles, other than to put fans in the seats."
Ultimately, it's difficult to separate Ripken from The Streak. Understandably, it defines his career. But, from what the majority of voters said, it's not the reason he is going to Cooperstown.
"People often say, 'If not for The Streak ...'" Rosenthal said. "That totally demeans him as a player, and it is wrong. He was a great player."
firstname.lastname@example.orgSun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.