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How Many Numbers Will Fit On The B&O Warehouse?

September 7, 1995

BALTIMORE (AP) _ He is under a full head of steam now, having run past Gehrig and his own modest ambitions, through the stop signs waved by the anti-Streak coaches gathered at third and on to ... where?

Cal Ripken does not have the answer. Baseball immortality does not come with instructions. Play one more game? Ten more? One hundred? One thousand? Better to ask how many more numbers will fit on the side of the B&O Warehouse beyond Camden Yards’ right field wall, where Wednesday night the number 2,131 was forever etched into baseball lore.

It also provided a fitting backdrop for one of the schmaltziest _ but somehow appropriate _ tributes the game has ever seen. If he hadn’t before, Cal must have considered himself afterward, one of the luckiest men in the world. That’s how strong was the outpouring of affection from fans in this working man’s town 25 miles down the road from where he grew up.

It began when the game became official after the top of the fifth and lasted more than 20 minutes. Ripken emerged to cheers from the Baltimore dugout, shed his No. 8 jersey, and gave it to his 2-year-old son, Ryan. Soon after, he shed his reluctance as well, making eight curtain calls in all. Sent out by teammates one more time, he made a lap of the ballpark, slapping fives with fans and shaking hands along the visiting California dugout like a guest at the receiving line in a wedding.

Through it all, cheers cascaded down from the stands, flashblubs popped, fireworks exploded and the smoke from Boog Powell’s barbecue stand lazily drifted higher, shrouding the numbers on the warehouse wall.

The last part hardly mattered to Ripken. This was not about numbers. He didn’t get into the game with one in mind. He hasn’t settled on one yet.

For his next game, he will show up in uniform at the appointed hour, check the lineup card, and trust that what’s ahead will be the same as what was. Another at-bat, another ground ball, another night and then, on to another town. That is how all those games came to be stretched end to end across all those years in the first place: one at a time.

All ballplayers have fears. Some hitters are afraid to stand in against knee-buckling curveballs. Some fielders bail out at the base before an opponent comes barreling into their sights. Carrying home the winning run, some runners go wide rather than take on a catcher squared up in the basepath, clad in a suit of armor to boot.

Those are not Cal’s fears. What scares him is that he won’t recognize the day when his desire or talent or most especially his courage have been used up.

``I hope I’ll know when it’s time for me not to play,″ Ripken said Tuesday night, moments after tying Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game mark.

``If something happens that causes me not to play _ the manager doesn’t think I’m worthy, a young whippersnapper takes over my position or I’m just too tired to play _ whatever the case may be, I hope I would realize that.″

Others have tried to make the decision for him. In the last few weeks, the anti-Streak crowd put up a smokescreen, arguing that by pushing too hard for the record, Ripken hurt himself and his team. Never mind that he is batting almost .380 during this homestand and has now homered in each of the last three games, the last two also being very emotional wins. What the anti-Streak crowd really objected to was Ripken wrestling it away from a man and an epoch in baseball that has come to seem more graceful the further it recedes into memory.

On the first score, there is no need to object. Ripken has proven himself every bit as elegant and mannerly as Gehrig, more durable if a bit less productive, and with as deep and abiding a love for baseball. He is as worthy a successor as the Pride of the Yankees could have chosen himself.

On the second score, there should be even less objection. Ripken and The Streak have become the closest thing to a conscience baseball has in this era of boundless arrogance and greed. Anyone who doubts it should check out the way opposing players have come first to value, and then protect, the last sacred thing left in their sport.

``If I hit him,″ Angels starter Brian Anderson said before Tuesday night’s game, ``I would have to change my name and enter the witness protection program.″

Proof that Ripken’s achievement had caused ripples in wider pools than just baseball’s was not hard to come by, either. Talk-show host David Letterman skewered him with a special ``Top Ten Reasons for Cal to Take a Day Off.″ President Clinton didn’t tell many jokes in the brief play-by-play stint he did with O’s broadcaster Jon Miller, though he smiled often touring the Baltimore locker room before Wednesday’s game with Ripken as his guide.

Yet, The Streak is still first and foremost a baseball thing. And so even acting commissioner Bud Selig, who helped draw up a plan for the replacement baseball that would have killed it, came out of hiding long enough to pay his respects.

``This comes at a great time for our game,″ Selig said.

In truth, it is probably too little, too late to right a ship buffeted by so many problems. That’s not Ripken’s fault. He’s already done more than one person can be expected to.

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