What does the consecutive-games record mean?
Lots of things.
It means Cal Ripken has been very lucky.
It means he has been very good.
It means that since May 30, 1982, he never has suffered an ailment serious enough to keep him out of the lineup, be it a pulled hamstring, ingrown toenail or broken ankle, stomach virus, sore shoulder or twisted knee.
It means that he has been productive enough to merit 2,131 consecutive starts. That his managers -- six of 'em -- always could rely on him. And that ground balls to the Orioles' shortstop almost always result in outs.
It doesn't mean he's as good as Lou Gehrig.
It means he broke his record, that's all.
It means Ripken has endured artificial turf, night games and cross-country travel at one of the game's most demanding posi- tions -- not to mention potential harm from 30 second basemen (including Alan Wiggins) and 40 third basemen (including Chris Sabo).
It means his body is strong, and his mind is stronger. Collisions at second base, collisions at home plate -- they've never felled Ripken. Day games after night games, 100-loss seasons, even death threats -- they haven't stopped him, either.
It means his career offensive statistics probably should be better. Avoiding pitchers such as Roger Clemens would have helped his batting average. Taking a day off during a slump could have helped, too.
It doesn't mean he needed a day off.
It means that by setting no limits, he might have set limits, anyway.
It means he is unselfish, but not completely unselfish. At some point, Ripken recognized he could reach Gehrig. It became a goal, if only for the reason that people attempt any seemingly insurmountable challenge -- because it is there.
Yet, it also means he wanted to help his team, even while chasing glory. He always could contribute defensively if not offensively, start a 6-4-3 double play even on days he went 0-for-3, serve as a model team player in an age of "me first" stars.
It means he is so single-minded, nothing off the field ever has detracted from his focus and preparation -- not lockouts and strikes, not the firings of his father, not the release of his brother.
It means he never has been dragged down by a disappointing team -- and Ripken has played for more than a few since the Orioles won the World Series in 1983.
It means he puts up with a lot.
It doesn't mean he lacks emotion.
It means he was raised right, but no more so than his brother Bill, brother Fred or sister Ellen. He just happens to be the one who was talented enough at baseball to become an American hero.
It means he works hard, but not necessarily harder than the average Joe -- remember, he's off 4 1/2 months a year, from October to mid-February. He also is rewarded handsomely for playing a child's game. People in less glamorous jobs work just as hard, over even longer periods of time.
It means he is a larger-than-life figure in Baltimore, with all the special responsibility that entails. Rather than withdraw from his community, Ripken has embraced it. He doesn't just sign autographs at Camden Yards. He also gives his time and money to charity.
It means Orioles scout Dick Bowie was right that Ripken could reach the majors as an infielder, even if he projected as a starting pitcher. And it means Earl Weaver was right when he moved Ripken to shortstop, even though others viewed him as a third baseman.
It means hardly anyone will remember that he has hit 324 home runs as a shortstop, set a major-league record for fewest errors by a shortstop in a season and won Most Valuable Player awards eight years apart.
It means Bobby Bonds, the man who once derided Ripken's streak as "idiotic," is feeling pretty silly.
It means the New York Yankees should change the Gehrig plaque at Yankee Stadium, the one that says Gehrig set a record that "should stand for all time."
It means Ripken is not just a Hall of Famer, but also a baseball legend, not just a great Oriole, but maybe the greatest of all time.
It means he's a stubborn geezer.
It means milk does a body good.
It means Cal Ripken loves to play.