What has kept Cal Ripken playing baseball without interruption since the middle of the Falklands War -- May 30, 1982 -- is that since then he has never come to the ballpark on a day when the Orioles had anyone who could play shortstop better than he can. Even if he didn't enjoy playing, which he does, he would do it anyway, every day, because that is what responsible grown-ups do: their jobs.
So, is it worrisome that many Americans think that what Ripken has done is exotic, even weird?
What he has done is work so regularly that on Wednesday he will cruise past Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games, heading for 2,500 (in late April 1998, if you plan to be there) and beyond. Someone probably will surpass DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak -- an "unbreakable" record -- before anyone comes close to breaking the one Cal Ripken is writing. (The closest current streak is fewer than 240 games.)
People who don't know baseball as big-leaguers experience it say: How lucky that he was never hurt. Actually, he has been hurt every year, but not hurt enough to justify, in his mind, taking a day off. What defines Ripken is his definition of "enough."
The ball is hard and is thrown hard. The ground is hard and players throw themselves on it, hard. (In 1982 Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases and was caught stealing 42 times. Imagine throwing yourself 172 times from a car traveling 20 miles per hour.)
Baseball is a game of severe torque on the torso and arms and sudden explosive accelerations. In a season of 1,458 innings, hurts accumulate and players play with pains that would prevent many sedentary moralists from picking up their paper off the porch so they can read the sports section and complain about the character of today's players. (Loudmouths in the bleachers would not walk to the concession stand on knees that hurt like those that may be carrying the Padres' Tony Gwynn to his sixth batting title.)
People who do not know Ripken wonder whether in recent years he has protected his streak by protecting himself. Such people should ask Terry Steinbach, the Oakland A's catcher.
On June 9, 1993, an A's pitcher hit Ripken, who was not amused but neither was he theatrical. He did not glare at the mound or otherwise "share his feelings" like a Nineties Man. He trotted to first base and the next batter moved him to second, at which point Steinbach must have thought: "Please, Lord, don't let this next batter get a hit that produces a play at the plate."
The next batter singled to the right fielder, who came up throwing toward Steinbach, who had to look toward right while Ripken roared in on his left. There was a majestic collision. Steinbach held onto the ball. Ripken was out. But Steinbach was taken out of the game to recuperate from this meeting with a man more interested in winning that night's game than in breaking records.
Ripken runs the risk of being remembered more for his work ethic than for the quality of his work. That happened to Gehrig, who is considered a kind of machine, more remarkable for mere durability than for driving in at least 150 runs seven times (no one has driven in 150 even twice since 1940), hitting 23 grand slams and being one of just three players (the others are Babe Ruth and Ted Williams) who rank in the top 15 in career home runs, RBIs and batting average.
For connoisseurs of the craft of baseball, Ripken's most memorable number is not 2,131 but 3. That is the number of errors he made in 1990 when he had 880 chances and set a major-league fielding record of .996. From 1989 through 1994, he had 4,445 fielding chances and made 58 errors, the lowest six-year total by an everyday shortstop in baseball history. Shortstop is the most exacting position in fair territory (give catchers their due) and Ripken's rival for the starting shortstop position on baseball's all-time team retired in 1917 (Honus Wagner).
Born and bred in baseball -- his father coached and managed in the minor and major leagues -- no one, player or manager, knows more about this game, about which there is so much to know. "Competence, indeed, was my chief admiration, then as now," said a Baltimorean who worked a few blocks from where Ripken does, "and next to competence I put what is called being a good soldier -- that is, not whining." H.L. Mencken could have had Cal Ripken in mind.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.