MINNEAPOLIS — MINNEAPOLIS -- Cal Ripken has maintained all along that No. 2,000 held no more meaning than No. 1,999 or No. 2,001. Judging from all the empty seats at the Metrodome last night, many in the Twin Cities evidently agreed.
But at least one person from St. Paul feels otherwise. Toronto Blue Jays designated hitter Paul Molitor, disappointed that the roofouts at the Seattle Kingdome meant he could not play in Ripken's 2,000th consecutive game, saw great significance in the round number.
"As much as Cal downplays the streak, and he does that with us, too, I hope deep down inside he realizes it's pretty phenomenal what he's done," Molitor said.
Ripken's biggest fan also treated this one as more than just another road game. Ripken's wife, Kelly, surprised him by coming to last night's game with the Minnesota Twins and was seated in the first row behind the Orioles' dugout.
As for Ripken, he declined the Twins' offer to set aside a room for a pre-game news conference. His day didn't vary from the norm. He ate lunch by himself at the team hotel shortly before heading to the park.
He joked with teammates, as he always does, took infield and batting practice with his normal blend of business and competitive pleasure.
"I don't know how that man hasn't gotten injured the way he runs around like a little kid every day," teammate Dwight Smith said.
It was pleasure as usual for Ripken last night.
Nothing special until his first turn at-bat at 7:13 p.m. when the public address announcer called attention to the streak and the crowd got on its feet for a long and loud ovation.
A tap of the helmet and a quick wave in each direction didn't still the audience. So Ripken removed the helmet, then got back down to business. Nothing maudlin about this reluctant celebrity.
"This is something I never set out to do," Ripken said. "I'm still not coming out here every day for the sake of the streak."
Now that Ripken is hitting again -- he's batting .312 with 12 home runs and 70 RBIs despite going 0-for-4 last night -- nobody is accusing him of playing for the sake of the streak instead of the team.
Consequently, the burden of the streak has eased.
"What's frustrating is when you have to defend wanting to play when you're not hitting," Ripken said.
While many concentrate on how many he has played, those around him tend to stress how he has played.
"One of my great pleasures in baseball is watching him play on a day-in, day-out basis," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said. "The knowledge, the concentration, the soft hands, always knowing whether he has to rush a play, never forgetting who the runner is."
Ripken at shortstop is the mind and body in harmony.
"He always seems in balance when it seems he should be out of balance," Hemond said. "He always knows just how to plant his feet, always recognizes exactly what he has to do to make the play. The concentration he has is incredible. Day in and day out, inning after inning, not getting flustered when a play takes place."
Molitor feels he has been cheated by Ripken. He would be closer to 3,000 hits than he is, he is convinced, if not for the astute positioning of the Orioles' everyday shortstop.
"Sometimes he plays me behind second. Sometimes he plays me in the hole. Somehow, I still find him," Molitor said. "When a ball is hit to short I'll yell 'boot it, kick it, drop it,' from the dugout. I don't even bother doing that with him anymore. I quit a couple of years ago."
But he didn't quit admiring Ripken.
"It's not about home-run titles or 30-win seasons," Molitor said of the streak. "It's so much more about a person and his character. It's really not performance-related."
A couple of Twins with Hall of Fame potential are pulling for Ripken to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak of 2,130.
"I'll just say it's unbelievable," Kirby Puckett said. "I've known Cal for 10 years, and we have a lot in common, but not that."
Dave Winfield has gone on the disabled list just four times in his 21-year career.
"I'd like to see him get the record," Winfield said. "I've played against him for so many years, and it's a great achievement that I'd like to see him get. It's amazing."
Terry Crowley, hitting coach for the Twins, was at first base for the Orioles in the game the streak started. He said he remembers nothing about the day.
Chances are he will remember last night's game.
TOP 10 IRON MEN
No. Player .. .. .. .. ..Consecutive games
1. Lou Gehrig .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..2,130
2. Cal Ripken .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..2,000
3. Everett Scott .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1,307
4. Steve Garvey .. .. . .. .. .. .. .1,207
5. Billy Williams .. .. .. .. .. .. .1,117
6. Joe Sewell .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1,103
7. Stan Musial .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...895
8. Eddie Yost .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .829
9. Gus Suhr .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...822
10. Nellie Fox .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 798