Even iron has a melting point. Morning newspapers landed a little harder on America's doorsteps on Monday with the affirmation of the scientific reality one man kept suspended for more than 16 years. It was there in the Baltimore Orioles' box score, the first one since the second game of a May 29, 1982, doubleheader that didn't include Cal Ripken Jr. An elegy in agate.
In perfect health except for a weariness of what he has called "the management" of his remarkable record of consecutive games, Ripken chose on Sunday night to sit out the Orioles' last home game of the season. Calibrate Ripken Jr.: 2,632 is baseball's newest magic number.
Ripken spent the second half of the season pondering whether to end The Streak and—starting last Thursday night—how to end it. Never before had he questioned his zealous desire to play every game, but recently he had come to realize that his least productive season in six years, and one of the worst by any third baseman this year, didn't justify his being in the lineup every day. A source close to Ripken said, "a tremendous part" of his decision was to relieve the Orioles of any fretting about his future as they deal with front-office and on-field upheaval this off-season—"to cut it out as an issue," the source said.
With his wife, Kelly, at his side, Cal was a flood lamp of happiness at his postgame press conference on Sunday night. To find a more exuberant day off you had to go back to Ferris Bueller, who like so much in today's culture postdates the start of The Streak. Compact discs came out and the Berlin Wall came down after Ripken began playing every game.
The Streak wasn't just his identity; it was ours, too. This was America the way we wish it to be—blue-collar, reliable, built on an honest day of work, one day after another. A delicious moment of cross-pollination from a historic September: "I'm no Cal Ripken," said Tim Forneris, the groundskeeper who retrieved Mark McGwire's 62nd home run, lamenting having missed his infield-dragging duties for the first time.
Ripken as American allegory, though, had little meaning to the man himself. The Streak was simpler to him than to the rest of us. "This is what I believe to be right" is how he explained his approach to the game.
He is his father's son. In 1984 the elder Cal Ripken flew all the way to Japan without ever once loosening the knot on his necktie, an act of discipline that amazed Edward Bennett Williams, then the owner of the Orioles. Williams recalled that stubbornness three years later when he was looking for a principled man to manage his team.
The son tracks with a scientist's precision the optimum popping time for various brands of microwave popcorn, eschewing the "two to five minutes" advisory as too vague. When his record of 8,243 consecutive innings ended in an 18-3 loss to the Blue Jays in 1987, he stayed up until 3:36 a.m. (naturally, he made note of the exact hour) filling nine pages of a yellow legal pad with his thoughts on sitting down.
There was a day in August 1997 when three top doctors at Johns Hopkins University Hospital examined a herniated disk in Ripken's back; all three told him to forget playing for a while. He played that night.
The Streak was a triumph more of his will than his considerable skill. DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, by comparison, was far more artful. But like DiMaggio, the Iron Man carried himself with unfailing class, even when the temperature around him soared to 1,535�C. What greater legacy can a ballplayer leave than that?