For sheer drama, nothing would have topped...


For sheer drama, nothing would have topped Cal Ripken's collecting his 3,000th hit at the end of last season. But Ripken never has been given to theatrics. Heck, Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro had to push him out of the dugout for a victory lap the night he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

He entered last season needing only 122 hits for 3,000. Anyone could do the math -- Ripken had never finished with fewer than 150 hits in a 162-game season. But then his world started to come apart emotionally and physically, and getting to 3,000 hits and 400 homers seemed the least of his problems.

Ripken lost his father, Cal Ripken Sr., in spring training. He removed himself for a pinch hitter on Opening Day due to lower back stiffness. And then, after two trips to the disabled list, he finally underwent season-ending back surgery on Sept. 23, one month after turning 39 years old.

Oh, it would have been something, seeing Ripken fight through his most trying season to become only the seventh player in major-league history to reach both the 400 and 3,000 plateaus. But Ripken's career has always been more methodical than dramatic, more consistent than majestic. Somehow, it's fitting that he took the long route to 3,000, persevering to the end.

What was the prognosis after Ripken underwent surgery? A six-month rehabilitation coinciding with the end of spring training. At that point, there was no way to know whether Ripken would open the season as the Orioles' regular third baseman. But as it turned out, there was never a doubt.

Musial, Aaron and Mays. Yastrzemski, Winfield and Murray. Those are the only other players to achieve 400 and 3,000. Each milestone is considered an unofficial qualifying standard for the Hall of Fame. Ripken is the only shortstop/third baseman on the list, but he will be remembered more for the number 2,632 than any other.

That said, it would be a shame if The Streak obscures 400 and 3,000 to the point where some might misconstrue Ripken's milestones as mere outgrowths of his long and productive career. The truth is that Ripken deserves far more credit for an achievement that would make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer even if he had never broken Lou Gehrig's record.

Is he one of the game's all-time great hitters? Not when his lifetime average is .XXX. Yet, for all the attention on his numbers, Ripken really can't be measured in any traditional sense. He is set apart by his physical strength, his mental toughness, his indomitable will. Those qualities carried him through 2,632 consecutive games, through the physical and emotional pain of last season, through his off-season rehabilitation. Carried him all the way to 3,000.

Ripken did not stagger to the milestone, like many Hall of Famers nearing the end of their careers. He set career highs with a .340 batting average and .584 slugging average last season. He batted .474 in his final 10 games before surgery. He then reported to spring training five days early, arriving in predictably terrific condition and telling manager Mike Hargrove he was "ahead of schedule."

Thus, like so many Ripken achievements, 3,000 became inevitable. The season began, the countdown resumed and history took its course. It was all so different last September. Ripken came off the disabled list Sept. 1, needing one homer for 400 and 32 hits in his last 31 games for 3,000. He delivered the landmark homer in his second game back, then -- whoosh! -- began steaming toward the landmark hit.

His surgery interrupted everything -- the prospect of reaching two milestones within a month, the rush of what could have been Ripken's most thrilling accomplishment. There was renewed speculation that Ripken might retire, an idea that had surfaced after he went on the disabled list last April. Such talk was preposterous, and Ripken proved it by returning for 3,000.

How long can he keep going? It's impossible to say. Ripken doesn't play for numbers; he plays because he enjoys the challenge. He came off the DL to hit his 400th homer. He came back from surgery to produce his 3,000th hit. What more can he accomplish on an individual level? Ripken will figure something out.

"I'm in a position in my life where I know I've had a great, fulfilling career," Ripken said in spring training. "I'm going to come in and enjoy every moment I can. The retirement thing will take care of itself. I know one thing for sure -- I can't come in and say I'm going to retire. I can't say this is my last year. You have to go out there and find out where you are, how you can compete."

That essentially has been his motto his entire career, and it has enabled Ripken to climb to the top of virtually every baseball mountain. For sheer drama, nothing would have topped 3,000 coming at the end of last season. But when it turned out that Cal Ripken needed to pass one more test, he simply pressed forward. His consistency is his majesty. He has always climbed one step at a time.

Exclusive club

Of 28 players who have 400 homers, Cal Ripken is only the seventh with 3,000 hits. Those who have done it:

Player Homers Hits

Hank Aaron 755 3,771

Willie Mays 660 3,283

Eddie Murray 501 3,218

Stan Musial 475 3,630

Dave Winfield 465 3,110

Carl Yastrzemski 452 3,419

Cal Ripken 404 3,000

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