BALTIMORE (AP) _ Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's ``unbreakable'' record Wednesday when he played his 2,131st consecutive game, becoming the most dependable athlete in the history of America's oldest sport.

Ripken started his big night by catching the ceremonial first pitches from his two children, then highlighted it by hitting a home run in the fourth inning.

Moments later the game between his Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels became official when it moved into the fifth inning, and Ripken was in the record book for now and possibly forever.

Casually, almost as matter of factly as he showed up for work day after day, Ripken accepted the fireworks and the adoration of the cheering hometown fans. Patting his heart several times, he stood on the field outside the Orioles' dugout as players from both teams, four umpires and the entire crowd of 46,272 joined in the 22-minute, 15-second standing ovation.

A fan held up a handwritten sign that said: ``Cal Thanks For Saving Baseball.''

Pushed out of the dugout, Ripken trotted a thank-you lap around the stadium. As flashbulbs popped, he shook hands with fans, seeking out children in particular. The usually low-key Ripken even jumped above the center field wall to slap high fives.

``I'm not sure that my reactions showed how I really felt,'' Ripken told the crowd in a postgame ceremony on the field. ``I just didn't know what to do.''

Watching from the stands were former Orioles star Frank Robinson; Ripken's first major-league manager, Earl Weaver; and Ripken's father, Cal Sr. Also present was Joe DiMaggio, who played with Gehrig and who holds what is widely regarded as baseball's other unbreakable record, a 56-game hitting streak.

``It's so difficult to fathom what it means,'' Orioles teammate Chris Hoiles said of Ripken's accomplishment. ``As a ballplayer, it just seems so amazing.''

The next-longest streak by an active player belongs to Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox, who has played a mere 234 straight games.

Gehrig's 1939 milestone had been expected ``to stand for all time,'' according to a plaque at Yankee Stadium in honor of the Hall of Famer killed by a neurological disorder now known as Lou Gehrig's disease. It was the advancing symptoms of the disease that weakened Gehrig and finally forced him to end the streak at 2,130 games.

Oriole outfielder Brady Anderson noted that baseball is about tradition and Ripken's accomplishment has only drawn more attention to Gehrig's record.

``Records are what brings out the best in people. They are all about challenging people,'' Anderson said.

And, ever important to Ripken, his team won. He had two hits and played flawlessly in the field as the Orioles beat the Angels 4-2.

President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were also on hand at Camden Yards to see Ripken's big moment.

Clinton's party visited Ripken before the game in the Orioles' locker room. The shortstop gave Clinton and Gore black Louisville Slugger bats and souvenir baseballs.

On Clinton's bat, Ripken wrote: ``To President Clinton. Thanks for being here on this special day. Cal Ripken.''

The president feigned horror, saying, ``I don't want you to get a hand cramp'' because of all the autographing.

Since Ripken started his streak on May 30, 1982, there have been 3,712 major leaguers on the disabled list. And baseball's 27 other teams have gone through an average of roughly 19 shortstops each in the 13 years that Ripken has started for the Orioles.

``I've been very achy the last few weeks,'' the 35-year-old Ripken admitted Tuesday night, after tying Gehrig's mark in Baltimore's 8-0 win over California. ``Maybe it's the nerves. It's been a difficult time.''

Ripken has never broken a bone, has never been knocked out of a game by a pitch even though he has been hit 44 times during his streak, and has never been wiped out badly while turning a double play at shortstop.

As a boy growing up in Aberdeen, about a half-hour away from Camden Yards, Ripken slept in his uniform the night before his first Little League game.

Years later, as a minor leaguer, he played in the longest game in professional baseball history: a 33-inning game in 1981 between his Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. Ripken played all 33 innings.

Later that summer, he made his major league debut as a pinch-runner and scored the winning run, waved home by his dad, Cal Sr., the Orioles' third base coach and eventually Cal Jr.'s manager.

The next year, he started his streak as a third baseman, moving to shortstop 27 games later.

``Whether your name is Gehrig or Ripken, DiMaggio or Robinson, or that of some youngster who picks up his bat or puts on his glove, you are challenged by the game of baseball to do your very best, day in and day out,'' Ripken said after the game. ``And that's all that I've ever tried to do.''