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After years of hard work, Cal can join the fun of his games On iron horse, Ripken streaks into season in spotlight


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Phil Regan is receiving offers for the record-breaking lineup card. Mike Flanagan is spinning yarns of a real-life Paul Bunyan. And Alan Mills is quoting from the Lou Gehrig monument at Yankee Stadium.

Streak Mania is upon us.

And the best part is, Cal Ripken is joining the fun.

"I'm announcing I'm going to retire and play professional basketball," Ripken said at the start of his news conference yesterday.

Laughter filled the room.

"You guys aren't going to write that, are you?" Ripken asked.

Wouldn't think of it, Rip, but just in case you change your mind, Randy Smith holds the NBA consecutive-games record at 906 games.

A pittance, compared to 2,009.

Baseball is back, the countdown is on, and everyone is excited, even the Sultan of Stoic, also known as Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr.

"It is positive. It is easier to deal with. It seems like it's gathering positive momentum," Ripken said.

"Maybe that's the reason I've become a little more at peace in dealing with it, or accepting that it even exists.

"I've fought for years that it wasn't my overall identity, wasn't something I set out to do. But I think I've accepted it's a part of what's going on."

A part of what's going on?

Right now, it's about the only redeeming thing in this sorry sport.

Here's a shocker: Memorabilia collectors already are pestering Regan for the historic lineup card from the game in which Ripken would break the record.

"Unbelievable," Regan said.

How much is he getting offered?

"Five-hundred dollars," he said.

So, he'd sell?

"I'm keeping it," Regan said, slapping his chest.

What if the Hall of Fame wants it?

"I might make 'em out another one."

What if Ripken wants it?

Regan smiled.

"I might have to give it to him."

Such a fuss, over a player who is in only the second-best physical condition in camp, after Sid "El Thin" Fernandez.

Regardless, Flanagan all but guaranteed that Ripken would break Gehrig's record.

What if a bomb drops?

"I don't know if that would do it," Flanagan said.

What if he broke a leg?

"He probably could still turn a double play."

What if he broke both legs?

"He probably could do it in a wheelchair," the Official Streak Oracle said.

Flanagan, the Orioles' pitching coach and Ripken's former teammate, said that even if Ripken broke a leg, "he probably could will it well overnight."

Regan, naturally, fears the worst. He even knows which foot specialist he'd call if Ripken sprained an ankle. The doctor works in Grand Rapids, Mich., near where Regan lives.

"We had a semipro team called the Grand Rapids Tackers," Regan said. "I literally saw a guy with a sprained ankle walk in on crutches, and walk out and play that night."

When did this miracle occur?

Uh, the late '60s.

"I still know his name, know his phone number," Regan said. "It's in the back of my mind."

Relax, Phil, that's where it will stay.

Nothing short of the apocalypse will stop Ripken. No longer is the streak a source of controversy. No longer does anyone say he should sit down.

That was a fan issue, a media issue, but never an issue among players. The proof came during the strike, when the union regarded the streak as sacred.

The players stand in awe of Ripken. Work stoppages, artificial turf, night games, cross country travel -- Gehrig never endured all that, and never played shortstop, either.

"When I was with the Yankees, I'd go out there where they have the monuments," said Mills, a pitcher the Orioles acquired from New York in February 1992.

"You'd read Gehrig's, and it talks about his consecutive-games streak, how it's a record that will probably never be broken.

"When I played there, I thought that. But after playing with Cal the last three years, when I go back out there now, I just smile."

Indeed, the only sad part of all this is that Ripken's past teammates, coaches and managers can't all share in what should be a very special season.

Infielder Tim Hulett was an Oriole for six years. A week ago, he signed a minor-league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Now, he'll miss everything.

"It's come up, even just talking with my kids and my wife in family conversations," Hulett said yesterday at the Cardinals' camp in St. Petersburg. "We've all thought about what it would be like to be there.

"I have one boy who plays shortstop. He's watched Cal the last six years. He tries to emulate the things he does -- except I'm trying to get him to throw over the top a little more.

"I tell him that Cal's got a little more experience [throwing sidearm]. I've warned Cal about it a few times. I say, 'You're setting a bad example for my kids.' "

So much for Ripken as a role model.

Seriously, if Hulett was unlucky to leave the Orioles, then how lucky was Bret Barberie to arrive in a trade?

Barberie, the club's fourth starting second baseman in four years, probably would be Ripken's double-play partner if the big day comes.

"I feel like I'm sneaking in just for this occasion," Barberie said.

Don't be shy, Bret.

Streak Mania is upon us, at last.

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