Only a select few have any idea what it's like to grasp for something untouchable and find it within reach. Cal Ripken joined that exclusive club last night when he played in his 2,131st consecutive game and broke a record that long was considered unapproachable.
But the record is a curious one, because it is the only one of baseball's legendary standards that is not -- in and of itself -- a statistical achievement born out of the competition on the field. It is a record of endurance that is only a reflection of performance, which leaves its place among baseball's most venerated records open to debate.
"Cal's streak takes a different kind of talent," said all-time hits leader Pete Rose. "Most things have to do with throwing the ball and hitting the ball. It [the streak] has nothing to do with talent, other than earning the right to play every day. If Cal's hitting .210, he's still going to play. I'm not taking anything away from it, but the home run record and the strikeout record and the hit record are totally different than Cal Ripken's streak. It just so happens that he has the stats to go along with it. It's good that he's a great ballplayer."
Rose knows records. He broke one of baseball's unbreakable records when he passed Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list. He also made a run at Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak in 1978, but had to settle for a share of the National League mark (44). He also was one of baseball's most durable players, with two playing streaks of more than 600 games, so he can view the record from more than one angle.
"Of course, I admire guys who break records, but this is not the kind of record that Cal really set out to break," Rose said. "It's just his philosophy. He goes to the ballpark and expects to play. I know how he feels. I was a terrible spectator."
Perhaps it could be considered, from a cynical viewpoint, nothing more than a record for perfect attendance. NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton had to run into angry 260-pound linemen 30 times a game to set the all-time yardage record. Ripken had to run -- uncontested -- onto the field every night to become the most durable player in baseball history. But there was so much more to it that many of those who have reached the statistical mountaintop find the streak as impressive as everyone else.
Ripken has had his share of collisions at second base, without the benefit of a helmet and shoulder pads. He has been hit by pitches 45 times and played with a variety of injuries that might have sidelined a less durable player. All the while, he has maintained a level of offensive and defensive performance that would make him a Hall of Fame candidate even without the streak.
"To me, it's a phenomenal streak," said Nolan Ryan, whose career-record 5,714 strikeouts may never be threatened. "If you had asked me if anybody would break Lou Gehrig's record, I'd have said, 'No.' If you said a shortstop, I'd have said, 'No way.' But a big shortstop? Everything goes against the odds. Then you see him play and he never changes. He projects a good image. The streak is representative of both the way he plays and lives his life."
Ryan went about it in much the same way. Walter Johnson held the all-time strikeout record -- at 3,508 -- when "The Express" broke into the major leagues with the New York Mets in 1966. It was not considered untouchable, but no one imagined that a power pitcher could remain healthy and overpowering enough to reach 5,000. Ryan blew by it and might have reached 6,000 if advancing age and nagging injuries had not finally forced him to retire after the 1993 season.
He got there by taking a start-by-start, work-harder-every-year approach and keeping the focus off individual statistical goals. Sound familiar?
"I never thought about 5,000 strikeouts until I got within range of it," Ryan said. "Then, all of a sudden, people focused on it and I started to think, 'Well, maybe I can do that.' I got a lot of satisfaction that I was able to get as many years as I did and play as many games as I did and throw God knows how many pitches I did. I had to throw more pitches than anybody else in history."
Hank Aaron was just as businesslike in his assault on Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs, but Rose seemed to revel in the carnival atmosphere that surrounded his attempt to replace Cobb as the game's all-time hit leader, as well as the earlier run at DiMaggio's record hitting streak.
Rose loved the limelight. He loved to talk ball with anyone who would listen. He seemed impervious to the pressure and public preoccupation with his separate assaults on two of the game's most venerated records.
"The Cobb thing was a little different," Rose said. "When I really had a lot of press around me was during the 44-game hitting streak. You had to get a hit every night. The Cobb record, I wasn't running out of time. I had all of September to break that record and I was playing good enough to break that record. I earned the right to break that record.
"He has to show up every day. It's more like a hitting streak. You have to be there every day."
And in some ways, it's very different. Most of the major-baseball records are proactive -- requiring a series of competitive achievements that builds to a suspenseful climax. The excitement grows as fans wait for something good to happen. Ripken's record is reactive -- requiring him to avoid any negative event that might endanger his ability to play.
"I honestly don't know about the game streak," Ripken said recently. "I don't know how that ranks. Maybe I don't allow myself to think about how it ranks. There's a lot of luck want to play. Did I say stubbornness, too? There's a lot of that. I don't know how that ranks."
Ripken may not know where his record ranks, but he ranks DiMaggio's hitting streak and Aaron's home run record as the most impressive in baseball history.
"[The 56-game hitting streak] is unreachable," Ripken said. "I had a chance to see Paul Molitor [who had a 39-game hitting streak in 1987] and, indirectly, Pete Rose. That is phenomenal to me, that you can go out each and every day and make sure you get a hit in every game you play in. You could hit four balls hard and they could make outstanding plays, or the pitcher could make outstanding pitches on you and you can't do anything with it. For anyone to be able to do that, that is extraordinary to me.
"And for Hank Aaron to hit as many home runs as he did, he had to be very good for a long period of time and his timing had to be just unbelievable. To hit 755 home runs, I can't fathom that."
Aaron recognizes the differences between his record and Ripken's, but he has no reservations about welcoming the Orioles shortstop into an elite fraternity of "untouchable" record holders.
"We definitely faced different pressures," Aaron told the Los Angeles Times last week. "I was dealing with the biggest icon in baseball and the sometimes threatening and bitter reaction to my being black. On the other hand, if I didn't hit a home run today, I knew I had a chance tomorrow. If I needed a day off, I could take it.
"Ripken can't take a day off and doesn't want one. He had to be both tough and talented, always in the middle of the infield and the middle of the game. It's an amazing record."
Still, there is room to wonder whether the consecutive-games record would have acquired such a lofty place in baseball history it had not been set by a player such as Gehrig, whose close association with Babe Ruth and untimely death turned his accomplishments into the stuff of legend. Did the Iron Horse create the streak, or did the streak create the Iron Horse?
Ripken is creating his own legend. He may not be the hitter that Gehrig was, but he is the all-time home run leader at his position and will be remembered as the most dependable shortstop of his generation. And, it should be pointed out, he never went to extremes to extend the streak, something even Gehrig did on occasion to sneak in a little rest or recover from an injury.
His 2,131st appearance may not have been as dynamic as Aaron's 715th home run, but the consecutive-games record clearly ranks among the most revered in pro sports.
"How often do these records get broken?" said Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone, who knows a little something about endurance records. He broke the all-time record for games caught in 1989, though that one did get broken -- by Carlton Fisk a few years later.
"Gehrig is baseball," Boone said. "When you talk about Gehrig and Ruth, they made baseball. Gehrig is one of the 10 or 20 people in baseball history whose names are synonymous with baseball. Cal is going to be part of that and I'm proud of him for it. To me, it's what the game is all about. It's such a grind and people don't understand what a grind it is. It's day in and day out, and that's the kind of player he is.
"What Cal is doing, and what Pete Rose and Hank Aaron did, were all career things that require a lot of talent. It's a talent achievement to be able to justify what he's doing. The streak is right there with the home run record and 4,000 hits. You can try to rate them if you want, but it's certainly in the all-time handful."
Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who played against Rose and Aaron and managed Ripken, said he doesn't think there's any point in debating the relative merits of baseball's all-time standards.
"I don't think that's important," Robinson said. "I think people should just understand that it's a tremendous achievement. Don't put it next to anything. Playing 2,131 games in a row is a tremendous accomplishment, and it shows what a special individual he is."
Now, it is Ripken who is untouchable. No active player has played even 250 consecutive games, and it seems unlikely that anyone in the foreseeable future will be allowed to undertake such a grueling quest.
"This one is positively unbreakable," said former major-league manager Gene Mauch. "The incentive won't be there. That kind of thing is not even encouraged anymore. What amazes me is his level of play. It's astounding."
Most of the major career records appear to be safe because there is less incentive in the current economic environment to remain in the game for the 20 to 25 years necessary to reach 755 home runs or 4,256 hits. Ripken's record didn't take that long, but it created enough controversy along the way that future managers may be unlikely to allow players to put them in such an inflexible situation.
"Yeah, when you think about it, the way the game has changed, you'd think that," Ryan said. "But it could change again, so I wouldn't say that. If things don't change, those records are a lot less likely to be broken."