Orioles columnist Dan Connolly talks with Cal Ripken Jr. about the significance of his streak of 2,131 consecutive games played, 20 years later. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
If you take Cal Ripken Jr. at his word, his quest to become baseball's all-time iron man was not a quest at all.
He would tell you — and he did many times after the Streak took on a life of its own — that his only obsession was with playing on that day, not the ones that came after or the ones that came before.
Fair enough, but Ripken's successful attempt to break Lou Gehrig's legendary consecutive games record was more than just the embodiment of one man's day-to-day commitment to show up for work and do his job. It was part of something greater.
It was one of those rare things that forges a link between eras and represents all that's good about sports and the American ethos.
The fact that a teenage Ripken didn't watch "Pride of the Yankees" one day and suddenly declare that he was going to chase down the Iron Horse only adds to its significance. The fact that he broke it on Sept. 6, 1995, and kept playing every game for three more seasons confirms that it wasn't just about breaking one of baseball's supposedly unbreakable records.
That doesn't mean that it wasn't important to him. Ripken wouldn't have played through countless injuries and endured years of late-season fatigue, not to mention absorbing criticism for staying in the lineup when he wasn't necessarily at his competitive best, if he didn't comprehend what it all meant on a personal as well as global level.
It certainly was important to Major League Baseball, though no one would realize how important until the sport dragged itself through a labor war so damaging that a large segment of its customer base decided to take the 1995 season off.
Ripken lured the fans back, sometimes one at a time, as he finally embraced his looming place in history and reached out almost daily with impromptu autograph sessions in city after city. He made a cynical public remember that the game was not about owners and lawyers and labor leaders. He made fans forget about that aborted salary cap every time he tipped his Orioles cap in another ballpark.
What he didn't do was make anyone forget Gehrig, whose legend was only partly built on his long-standing record of 2,130 consecutive games played. Gehrig remains one of baseball's most poignant heroes, his career and life cut short by ALS and his legend chiseled into the American consciousness with the famous speech in which he declared himself "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."
Gehrig remains an icon of baseball's Golden Age and Ripken remains a throwback to a simpler era. The case could be made even before Ripken added 501 games to the record that Ripken's streak was a much more grueling achievement because he played a more demanding position in the age of coast-to-coast travel and 162-game schedules.
Doesn't matter. Both streaks live on and fit nicely into their own periods of baseball history. Gehrig was the steady, unbending choir boy who stood in stark contrast to Babe Ruth in the Yankees lineup famously known as "Murderers' Row." Ripken was the guy in the milk commercials who played through much of the steroid era and came out clean.
Gehrig wasn't the first player to run up a long string of consecutive games. Baseball's first true iron man was Everett Scott, a shortstop like Ripken who played 1,307 straight games for the Red Sox and Yankees from 1916 to 1925. He and Gehrig were teammates during the 1925 season, but Scott's streak ended 26 days before Gehrig's began.
Hall of Famer Joe Sewell became the second major league player to appear in more than 1,000 consecutive games, running up a streak of 1,103 as a member of the Cleveland Indians from 1922 to 1930. He also would play for the Yankees late in his career and played on the same infield as Gehrig, but their streaks did not overlap while they were teammates.
Scott's streak stands as the third longest, but Sewell would be overtaken by Billy Williams (1,117), Steve Garvey (1,207), Ripken (2,632) and Miguel Tejada (1,152), in chronological order.
Garvey, who holds the National League record, made no secret of his desire to challenge the Gehrig streak while he was the first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, but his quest was cut short when he suffered a severe hand injury sliding into home plate during the 1983 season.
Much was made at the time Ripken broke Gehrig's record of the wording of Gehrig's monument at Yankee Stadium, which predicted that Gehrig's "amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time."
No similar claim has been immortalized in bronze regarding Ripken's streak, but it's fair to ask whether it's even conceivable that anyone will ever mount a serious challenge to it.
There are all sorts of reasons to believe it will stand forever, starting with the simple fact that Gehrig's stood for more than a half-century and Ripken's is longer by more than three full seasons. But there are other reasons that are actually rooted in the Ripken streak, which became controversial at times when he was struggling at the plate.
In a sense, Ripken and his managers became prisoners of its historical significance. Once Gehrig's record became a real possibility, the Streak became more important than any individual managerial move or lineup decision.
There also are economic arguments against it in the age of $300 million contracts. Superstar players are too valuable to risk allowing them to play through injuries or excessive fatigue, so it's exceedingly unlikely that many players will get the opportunity to play continuously long enough to force the issue.
Ripken, like Gehrig, was a very special case. He was a big, durable guy with local roots who established himself early on as one of the great all-around players at his position. "The Streak," he liked to say, was a byproduct of an old-fashioned work ethic instilled in him by his father and a level of performance that justified his place in the lineup right up to the end.
No argument here.
Editor's note: Sun columnist Peter Schmuck is the only sportswriter to have covered significant portions of Cal Ripken's all-time record consecutive games streak and Steve Garvey's National League record streak as an everyday beat writer — covering the Orioles in the early 1990s and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the early 1980s.