"The proudest thing I have that I can think of is being given credit for changing the mind-set of being a shortstop," Ripken said. "The guys like Derek and Alex come along and thank me for that. And I try to put it into perspective that my success at the position maybe just changed the attitude toward the position."

Ripken's career can be hard to summarize because it features many solid seasons wrapped around three great ones. He burst onto the scene and in his second and third full seasons was probably the best player in baseball. His numbers then declined fairly steadily for six years before he posted his greatest offensive season at age 30.

He never played nearly that well again, though he produced superb numbers in abbreviated 1994 and 1999 campaigns.

At his best in 1983, 1984 and 1991, Ripken was a great player by any measure. He fielded far more balls than the average shortstop, hit over .300 with rare power for his position and, of course, never missed a game.

"Obviously the best player in baseball at this point," wrote historian and analyst Bill James in his 1985 Baseball Abstract.

Baseball Prospectus keeps a statistic that measures the wins a player is worth above a replacement-level talent. In 1991, Ripken was worth a whopping 17.2 wins. For a little perspective, that ranks behind only one season in Babe Ruth's career and ahead of any season Ty Cobb, Willie Mays or Barry Bonds posted.

That version of Ripken might have been the best shortstop since Honus Wagner. And streak or no streak, Ripken's durability proved immensely valuable. Certainly, many less-esteemed players might have matched or exceeded his career numbers if they had been able to stay on the field. But that's precisely the point. They could not.

"There's a reason why other players stand in awe of that record," Gibbons said. "It's just the hardest thing you can imagine."

After the 2000 season, James ranked Ripken the third-best shortstop in baseball history behind Wagner and Arky Vaughan and the 48th-best player overall.

A Sun poll of Hall of Fame voters found that 177 said they voted for Ripken and only one didn't because he wouldn't back anyone from the "steroid era." Also, in another question, 147 of 169 rated Ripken a first-ballot choice regardless of The Streak. But 22 disagreed, indicating that the record did push Ripken to the pantheon for some.

Fellow players say his career totals are undeniable.

"I think he's in the Hall of Fame easily, regardless of The Streak," Gibbons said. "You look at those numbers at his position, and there's just no question."

"There's no doubt, really," Jeter said. "I mean, 3,000 hits, 400 homers, that's pretty good."
Unbreakable?:

Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak of consecutive games played, 2,632, ranks near the top of the baseball records considered unbreakable. Some of the other numbers unlikely to be surpassed:

• 749: Cy Young's complete games

• 511: Cy Young's victory total

• 191: Hack Wilson's RBI total in 1930

• 110: Walter Johnson's shutouts

• 56: Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak in 1941

• 54: Ty Cobb's career steals of home

• 41: Jack Chesbro's victories in 1904 (modern-day record - Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn had 59 in 1884)

• 2: Johnny Vander Meer's consecutive no-hitters in 1938

• .367: Ty Cobb's career batting average

childs.walker@baltsun.com