The streak has survived 14-plus years and 2,238 consecutive games, and here was Cal Ripken Jr., leaving the field before Tuesday night's All-Star game with blood pouring from a broken nose and only one thought on his mind.
"How embarrassing," the Baltimore Oriole shortstop said. "The last thing I want is to go down as the only player in the history of the All-Star game to sustain an injury in the team picture."
The team picture?
Think about it.
How many times in those 14-plus years has Ripken avoided a runner intent on breaking up a double play at second base? How many hard slides has he made into a well-protected catcher? How many ground balls taking bad hops have bounced off his body?
And now here was the possibility that a bizarre accident during the taking of the American League's team picture would prevent Ripken from extending the streak when the Orioles resume their season Thursday with an important four-game series against the New York Yankees, their dreaded Eastern Division rival.
"I expect to play," Ripken said. "I'm generally a good healer. I don't anticipate any problems."
Heck, he played Tuesday night, making his 13th consecutive All-Star start only about two hours after suffering the broken nose when he was inadvertently hit by Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Roberto Hernandez's left forearm.
Hernandez looked at the nose, saw the blood and felt more pain than Ripken.
"I thought I'd have to get a damn bodyguard the next time we go to Baltimore," he said. "I knew that if it ended the streak, I'd be dead."
This is how it happened:
American League players were leaving a tiered platform in center field at Veterans Stadium after posing for the traditional team picture before batting practice when, according to Ripken, the platform tilted.
"My first reaction, my only reaction, was to try and balance myself," Hernandez said. "I knew I was going to fall and Cal was going to fall on me.
"I threw up my hands and caught him in the nose with my forearm. I'm glad it wasn't my elbow or it would have been worse. He was bleeding pretty badly and I offered him my shirt to help stop the bleeding."
Ripken went to the clubhouse, where he took one look at the medical staff looking at him and knew it wasn't pretty.
"I looked in the mirror and went. 'Yuck!' " he said.
Phillip Marone, the Philadelphia Phillies' team physician, provided some impromptu treatment.
"He kind of pinched it, popped it and put it back in place," said Ripken, who returned to the field for batting practice and experienced no problem breathing and no swelling.
Did the relief pitcher experience relief?
"I was watching and praying for him to come back out," Hernandez said. "As soon as I saw him, I said to myself, 'Yes! The streak is alive.' "
Ripken appeared amused as the crush of reporters prompted a formal news conference after batting practice.
"Yes, it's true, I'll do about anything to get to the interview room," he said, tongue clearly in cheek.
He said he would have the breathing passages checked out in Baltimore today, but that Marone didn't give him any reason to expect problems.
"But I reserve the right to use it as a crutch when I make an error or swing and miss," Ripken said.
How did Hernandez look when it happened?
"He seemed to have the same expression as when he strikes me out to end a game," Ripken said, smiling.
"It was strictly a freak thing. There's no one to blame."
Ripken shrugged this off, saying it didn't compare to two earlier close calls during the streak.
He sprained an ankle in the first week of the 1985 season and has often said he probably couldn't have played the next day, but the Orioles were only scheduled to play an exhibition game with the Naval Academy. Ripken rested, then returned to the lineup the next night.
Then he twisted a knee during a brawl with the Seattle Mariners in June of '93 but played in the next game, despite swelling.
The strange incident Tuesday night was the latest in a strange season for Ripken.
He was removed from the Baltimore lineup for a pinch-runner with an April game still on the line, a first during the streak. Then Manager Davey Johnson caused a national stir in June when he considered moving Ripken to third base. And owner Peter Angelos sparked headlines in Baltimore recently when he suggested that Ripken should step up and become more of a team leader.
"This hasn't been a lot of fun," he said of the '96 season. "I consider myself a noncontroversial player, but I haven't been able to escape a series of mini-controversies.
"I find the comments by Mr. Angelos a little amusing.
"For a long time, I was said to have too much of a stranglehold on the team. Now I hear that I don't have enough influence.
"All I've ever wanted to do is contribute in every way possible to a winning effort."
The streak represents Ripken's most visible example of that.
And not even Roberto Hernandez's forearm will prevent him from keeping his nose to the grindstone.