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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Privacy a Key to Keeping Streak Alive, Ripken Says

I remember sitting with Cal Ripken Jr. in a golf cart at Miller Huggins Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on a warm afternoon last March.

The Baltimore Orioles had finished a three-hour workout, and their renowned shortstop was taking a break before training in the weight room.

It was a different kind of spring for Ripken, a more relaxed and pleasant spring, he said. That was because media focus was not on his consecutive-games playing streak but on the Orioles’ high expectations in the aftermath of the $40-million-plus spending spree by new owner Peter Angelos, and the signing of Rafael Palmeiro, Sid Fernandez and Chris Sabo among others.

Those expectations have largely evaporated now. The New York Yankees are burying the Orioles in the American League East. The focus is squarely on Ripken again as The Streak rolls on, likely to be interrupted only by a players strike on Aug. 12, delaying his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games. Ripken figures to surpass it next June or July, depending on the length of the imminent work stoppage.

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Ripken made it 2,000 in a row Monday night in Minnesota. He has not missed a game since Memorial Day of 1982.

Operating at a position more susceptible to injury than any other except catcher, he is in his 12th year of defying both injury and the disabled list, which is often nothing more than an excuse for a midsummer vacation. Major league disabled lists have been used more than 3,100 times since Ripken began his streak. A total of 492 players have appeared at shortstop in that time. The next longest major league streak is that of Jeff Conine of the Florida Marlins. Conine is only about a decade behind Ripken.

“Incredible,” said Mark Belanger, a former Baltimore shortstop who is special assistant to Executive Director Don Fehr of the players’ union. “Besides being a great player, do you know how strong he has had to be physically and mentally?

“I mean, there’ve been a lot of times at clinics or in conversations with other players when we’ve used Cal as an example of the approach we wish all players would take. Everyone likes to talk about the big salaries, but the Orioles are getting a bargain with Cal. Consider his contributions on and off the field and he’s worth even more than they’re paying him.”

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Ripken is in the third year of a five-year, $30.5-million contract.

Roland Hemond, the Orioles’ general manager, characterized Ripken as the consummate example of dedication and application. Manager John Oates said his lineup cards come with Ripken already typed in. The shortstop decision is out of his hands.

“If the Good Lord wants him to have a day off, he’ll let it rain. Otherwise, if he stays healthy, he’ll break the record,” Oates said.

Ripken talked about it again as he sat in the golf cart that day in March, even as he described how it had taken a secondary role to questions about the team and how lovely that respite was. He talked about it as he is forced to do nearly every day, a patient prisoner of a streak that has become his identity.

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“This has nothing to do with Gehrig and everything to do with my view of baseball,” he said. “If I thought I was hurting the team, I’d sit down in a minute and have no regret about the streak. I mean, the streak is only the result of my approach, and I’ve never understood the criticism. I’ve never understood being criticized for wanting to play at a time when a lot of players are criticized for not playing.”

He is criticized only when he is not hitting and it is suggested he could benefit from rest. Barry Bonds accused Ripken last year of being stupid and costing the Orioles a pennant.

Said Ripken: “I’ve asked myself all the same questions. . . . Should I play or shouldn’t I? Is it too much of a grind mentally? Am I strong enough to handle it? I’ve considered all kinds of things, and in the end I go out and play. In the end I don’t feel I should have to apologize for wanting to play. In the end I try to simplify it by working hard and fixing whatever hitting problems I have, because the questions seem to be the loudest when I’m not hitting.”

Ripken was batting .312 with 12 home runs and 69 runs batted in as he played in his 2,000th consecutive game. His application is such that he seldom misses infield practice and is often the last player to leave the clubhouse after a game. Once considered too big to play shortstop, he has played the position in virtually every game of the streak.

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Because of the attention surrounding the feat, he often registers under a fictitious name at a different hotel than the team’s and takes a van, rather than the team bus, to the ballpark.

“I’ve been portrayed as aloof, in hiding, not a team player, but all of that is taken out of context,” Ripken said. “The streak seems to have become my identity, and I have to deal with it in just about every city, every series. The longer it goes, the bigger it becomes, and the more it’s an issue of management. I have only so much concentration. I can’t use up 75% of it before I even get to the ballpark. I have to protect a certain amount of my privacy. I owe it to the club and myself.

“I’ve always looked on myself as an unselfish, non-controversial player whose only goal has been to work hard and play every day. I find it amazing that the streak has evoked so many strong opinions and so much criticism.”

The countdown to Gehrig is likely to go on hold in two weeks. Amazing, indeed. It will take a player walkout to stop the player who only wants in.

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