COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Feature on Cal Ripken
The 3,184 hits, the 431 home runs, the flawless defense at shortstop -- there are so many reasons Cal Ripken Jr. was a near-unanimous pick for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But Ripken will forever be tied to one number: 2,632, the number of games he played consecutively with the Baltimore Orioles from 1982 through 1998.
In many ways, that one record lifted Ripken beyond the realm of almost anyone ever to play the game.
"My career seems very storybook-like," Ripken said. "But the record was something I never thought of while I was playing. I just wanted to go out there and do my job every day."
Ripken did his job as well as any shortstop in history, redefining a position that previously was the domain of small, quick defensive specialists. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound Ripken moved from third base to shortstop in the middle of the 1982 season and remained there for the next 14 years, winning American League Most Valuable Player honors in 1983 while leading the Orioles to a World Series win over the Phillies.
But it almost didn't happen. Ripken was drafted as a pitcher and a shortstop in 1978, and most major league scouts had him headed for a career on the mound.
"It was a split decision about what to do with me," Ripken said. "They asked me what I wanted, and I said: 'Pitchers only get to play every five days. I want to play every day.'"
Ripken fulfilled that promise, entering Baltimore's regular lineup May 30, 1982. He took himself out Sept. 20, 1998 -- a streak that included a record streak of 8,243 consecutive innings.
Ripken played three more years after the streak ended, finishing with 19 All-Star berths, a record 345 home runs at shortstop and two AL Most Valuable Player Awards.
Ripken hit 20-plus home runs in 10 straight seasons (1982-91) and drove in 100-plus runs four times. His 603 doubles rank 13th all time, his 11,551 at-bats are fourth and he is one of just eight players to appear in at least 3,000 career games.
And even before his career was over, the fans seemed to realize they were watching a once-in-a-lifetime player. When he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played record Sept. 6, 1995, he received a 22-minute standing ovation at Camden Yards as he circled the stadium to thank the fans.
"The best human experience of my life was probably that spontaneous lap," Ripke said. "Because by the end of that lap I could care less whether the game restarted.
"I think we all know we need each other in this life. The fans are the ones that create the excitement, and I was the beneficially of this situation."
Ripken received a record 537 votes in this year's Hall of Fame election, and his 98.53 percentage was the third-best ever -- behind only Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.
But for Ripken, it was always team-first, awards later.
"My greatest baseball moment: the World Series," Ripken said. "I caught the last out of the World Series as a very young man in 1983, and as I caught that ball, a feeling came around me that nothing has come close to in this game.
"I think I'd like to be referred to as a gamer -- one who loved and respected the game."
Contact Craig Muder at email@example.com.
Utica (N.Y.) Observer-Dispatch