American League president Gene Budig has been saying for more than a month now that he would do his best to ensure that if and when Cal Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played, Ripken will do it at Camden Yards.

But Budig's statements have been somewhat misleading, creating the impression that there's a smidgen of doubt as to where the momentous occasion will occur. Barring an act of God, such as 40 days and 40 nights of rain, Ripken will be at Camden Yards when he plays in his 2,131st straight game, his sprint onto his home field followed by a national television audience, chronicled by thousands of reporters over the course of the season.

It will happen this way because, in 1995, baseball needs it to happen this way. The great season of 1994 was interrupted, the World Series lost for the first time since 1904 and for 7 1/2 months, the game captured the imagination of labor lawyers and court reporters.

The sport needs credibility now, and there is no player more credible than Ripken, nothing more credible than the streak, with all the inferences of continuity that baseball once owned and now needs again. Of course, the 2,131st consecutive game, if the streak lasts, will be played at Camden Yards, the biggest story of the 1995 season.

How will Ripken handle all the attention?

"I wish I had a good answer for you," he said. "I wish I could tell you this is the way I'm going to handle it and this is the way I'm going to try to play baseball.

"I'm going to try to do the best I can at retaining my focus on baseball and try to approach this season just like I've done every season, and as corny as it may sound and I've said it a zillion times, I try to take it day by day because I'm not good at looking far ahead."

Even if Ripken isn't looking ahead, baseball has other developments to watch for as well:

Will the fans come back?

Since the resolution of the strike, the owners and players have been outspoken about wanting to be more fan-friendly. Some players suggest they need to be more gracious and spend more time signing autographs. But given what baseball fans have been through, that's a little like sending flowers in apology for an extramarital affair.

How the fans receive these token gestures of appreciation will become apparent soon, as they decide whether or not to invest dollars in a sport that has shown an inability to manage its money.

The crowds for exhibition games were modest, but that's not really a fair test, because so many fans plan their spring-training trips months in advance and there was no way of knowing exactly when the players would return.

The fans in Baltimore, Boston, Colorado and Toronto and Los Angeles will return. But watch how much the crowds in Kansas City, Montreal and Minnesota decline -- and they will decline. Watch if the players are booed when they take the field. Then you'll get a reading on the collective mood of baseball's fans.

Who knows? They may have tired so of seeing Donald Fehr and Bud Selig and are thrilled so at the sight of Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas that they could embrace baseball, like a runaway child. Oh, we're so happy you're home. . . . Now, don't ever do that again.

More Selig? More Fehr?

The end of the strike was nothing more than a cease-fire, because, despite those months of anguish, there is no labor agreement. For all intents and purposes, nothing has changed, beyond the fact that the game has been damaged.

It all could happen again. The looming threat of a labor structure implemented by the owners. A strike date set by the players. The World Series canceled.

It all could happen again, though it seems unlikely. Both sides are weary, and the players, in particular, seem fed up. The union might have a hard time mustering another strike vote, especially after the middle and lower classes of the players association have been so ravaged in the aftermath of the resolution. New Orioles outfielder Andy Van Slyke, for example, took a pay cut of nearly $3 million.

But it could be that the owners will sense this, feel they possess negotiating leverage and plow ahead.

Can small markets survive?

Not since the days when the New York Yankees used the St. Louis Browns as a de facto farm club has the polarity of big- and small-market teams been more pronounced. The small-market Montreal Expos traded away All-Star reliever John Wetteland to the big-market Yankees, traded away All-Star pitcher Ken Hill to the big-market St. Louis Cardinals, traded away All-Star outfielder Marquis Grissom to the big-market Atlanta Braves.

The Kansas City Royals dumped several stars, too. The Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers have little chance to compete for division titles. The small-market hopes this year rest in San Diego, where new ownership has help turn the Padres into contenders, and in Seattle, where Mariners ownership has announced it intends to keep left-hander Randy Johnson and make a run at the AL West title.

But for all those hours of talks and negotiations, there is still no revenue sharing.

The players

There is virtually no chance for Matt Williams or Ken Griffey Jr. to threaten Roger Maris' single-season record for homers this year, because the strike shortened the schedule from 162 to 144 games.

But Tony Gwynn or Thomas could approach .400. The Cleveland Indians could win their first pennant since 1954, led by center fielder Kenny Lofton. Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux is going for his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award. The Yankees will contend for their first postseason appearance since 1981, assuming that owner George Steinbrenner doesn't get in the way.

Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott says she doesn't really see much of a difference between replacement players and the regulars. In that case, the rest of the NL wishes she just had kept her replacements, because the Reds may have the league's strongest team. Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, three stars who've talked about retiring, could be playing their final seasons, and another aging star, Eddie Murray, will be going after 3,000 hits.

And there is Cal Ripken. Everyday, Cal Ripken. All summer, Cal Ripken. The game needs him.

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