GOING...GOING...STILL GOING

Among thousands of celebrants, the happiest man in baseball this week has to be American League president Gene Budig. Had the divisive players' strike lasted just two more days, after all, Budig might have faced the sticky task of breaking Cal Ripken Jr.'s historic date with the Iron Horse.

Unless you've been playing bush-league ball on Neptune for a couple of seasons, you know what we're talking about. When he was so rudely interrupted last August 12, Ripken, the Baltimore Orioles' 34-year-old shortstop, had played 2,009 straight games for his club. The streak, which has survived some other close calls, started way back on May 30, 1982, when young Cal's hair was still dark brown. Had Budig been forced to rule Ripken MIA on Opening Day, the Grand Old Game's already-besmirched reputation would have crawled under a rock.

Instead, Baltimore's workaholic, blue-collar hero, a guy who was once managed by his own father and turned Orioles double plays with his brother Billy, needs 122 straight appearances this season to break baseball's most hallowed remaining record--the great Lou Gehrig's streak of 2,130 consecutive games. Barring rainouts or--heaven forbid--resumption of the strike, Ripken will make history on September 6 at Baltimore's Camden Yards against the California (better make that "Cal") Angels.

The object of all the attention doesn't want to think about it. In contrast to record-setters who crow about their prowess, then tear third base out of the ground for a souvenir, Ripken declines even to compare himself to Gehrig. "I never set out to play all those games in a row," he said last week. "It's just something that happened. If they want to keep putting me in the lineup, I'll keep playing. It's what I do."

Orioles fans can't wait. When the strike finally ended last week, they bought 25,000 Opening Day tickets in one afternoon.

Single-minded football nuts, confirmed hoop-heads and other impatient types are always complaining about baseball's obsession with statistics and records, and there's some justice in their argument. But some marks still matter. When Roger Maris hit his 61st home run in 1961, he broke a Babe Ruth record that had stood for 34 years. When, amid racial slurs and death threats, noble Henry Aaron surpassed Ruth with his 715th career homer in 1974, the baseball gods themselves must have been cheering from the bleachers. And when Pete Rose, a great player now disgraced, stroked his 4,192nd base hit in 1985, he broke the age-old record of Ty Cobb, a great player long despised.

In baseball's climate of disillusionment and distrust, Ripken's quiet assault on Gehrig's record could mean even more. In an era when most of the hot dogs are playing the field, it is a testament to determination and to craft, a symbol of the game's greatness, its agelessness, its wonder.

Happily, the two figures standing in the light this spring could hardly be more exemplary--and we could use some of that just now.

For the joy of the game, Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig batted .340 over the course of seventeen seasons, hit 493 home runs (including an amazing 23 grand slams) and batted in 1,990 runs. He played through seventeen broken fingers, three concussions, a couple of bruised shoulders swollen up like sides of beef, a broken hand in the 1931 off-season and the occasional ribbing of his Yankees teammates. They didn't quite get it when the Columbia graduate brought Socrates, Schopenhauer and Kant into a clubhouse where some of the fellows had trouble deciphering the Sporting News.

Most notably, of course, the Iron Horse also played through the onset of the incurable disease that now bears his name. After fifteen years of never missing a start, Gehrig finally took himself out of the lineup on May 1, 1939.

"Maybe a rest will do me good," he said, already knowing better. "Maybe it won't, who knows? Who can tell? I'm just hoping."

Gehrig's shadow is huge, and the threats to his longevity loomed large, but the unassuming Ripken has a couple of heroic things going for him, too.

One, he has started all 2,009 games--no designated-hitter duty, no late-inning pinch-runner appearances--and he has played 18,139 of the 18,287 innings that make up his streak.

Two, he plays shortstop. At six-foot-four and 225 pounds, Ripken is certainly not the fastest, but he's one of the biggest, strongest middle infielders ever to play major-league ball, and he credits much of his durability to his size. Like Gehrig, who was six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, Ripken might have found himself at first base, largely out of harm's way. The most remarkable element of his feat may be that he's survived fourteen years of crunching collisions with sliding runners at second base, as well as the chin music that comes with being a dangerous clutch hitter.

Characteristically, the hard-nosed Ripken has never shied from such confrontations. He has constantly heard the beef that playing all his games at such a tough spot hurts his effectiveness afield. Still, preseason pundits once again rank him first among American League shortstops, and no one is about to argue with his .315 batting average and the thirteen home runs he hit in strike-shortened 1994.

Not only that, two of the three close calls that threatened to end Ripken's streak give lie to any criticisms. Way back on April 10, 1985, he sprained an ankle on a pickoff play, but he finished the game and, with an off-day to heal, started again April 12. On June 6, 1993, he leaped into the thick of his team's brawl with the Seattle Mariners and came up with a severely twisted knee. As stoic as he is steady, he could barely get out of bed the next day. But he played the entire game.

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