The Top 175: No. 6, Cal Ripken Jr.

There's the Hall of Fame plaque, the World Series ring and the hardware he won for Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player (twice) and countless other accomplishments.

Sometimes, Cal Ripken Jr. looks at that stuff and wonders: Is it really mine?

"The farther removed [from playing] that I get, the more it all seems like another lifetime. But I'm pretty sure it all happened to me," said Ripken, 51, who spent 21 seasons with the Orioles before retiring in 2001.

"When you're not playing baseball, day to day, in many ways your career is like looking back on a dream."

A dream it was for Ripken, the Aberdeen kid who grew up to play for his hometown team — managed briefly by his father — and sculpt a legacy of determination that would long resonate with baseball fans. His jersey bore a figure 8, but the number 2,131 defines Ripken. Just as, for decades, 2,130 spoke volumes about the work ethic of the New York Yankees' Lou Gehrig.

Will Ripken's big league record of having played in 2,632 consecutive games stand forever? The Iron Man thinks not.

"If I can do it, certainly someone else can," Ripken said. "Stubbornness played a part. I'm ornery about doing things a certain way. I still like routines; I like habits.

"Luck was a factor, and so was not getting hurt. I must have hit a million pitches off my foot, but it never swelled up like most players' do. I attribute my healing powers to my daddy [Cal Sr.]. He got hit by a line drive in Boston while coaching third base, but the next day, he was back out there."

If the streak is his tattoo, Ripken said that setting that mark wasn't the apex of his career.

"I had some really good human moments, milestones like the 2,131 game, where I took the lap around the field," he said. "But that was more of a personal feeling, a chance to reach out to fans and say, 'Thank you,' like a one-on-one celebration.

"The best feeling I had in baseball was catching the last out in the [1983] World Series — a little humpbacked liner that wouldn't otherwise have made it onto ESPN 'SportsCenter.' The dream is to win the Series, where — at that moment — the sense of satisfaction you feel as a team floods over you, like nothing else."

Ripken played in 19 All-Star Games, at shortstop and third base, and was twice named American League MVP. He collected 3,184 hits, 431 home runs and 1,695 RBIs. Growing up, he never imagined such success.

"At 10, I was batboy for the Orioles' farm club in Asheville [N.C.] where my dad managed. I thought those minor league guys had the best jobs in the world, so I aspired to be a Class AA player," he said.

Regrets are few.

"I wish I'd played on more championship teams, and that [the Orioles] had not gone through so many rebuilding processes," he said. "And I think that Dad should have had the opportunity to manage. When he got the team, we were clearly in a rebuilding mode."

Cal Sr. piloted the Orioles to a sixth-place finish in 1987 and for the first six games in 1988, all losses, when he was fired.

Nonetheless, Ripken said, "I was able to play my whole career with one team, like my hero,Brooks Robinson.

"I played as hard, and as long, as I could. To be remembered at all is cool, but I'd like to be remembered as a 'gamer' — a player who comes to the ballpark ready to meet the day's challenges, no matter what they are, and play for a team that can count on you to always be there."

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