BALTIMORE -- Every now and then Cal Ripken feels a twinge in his lower back, a reminder that he's a mere mortal and not really an Iron Man.
Not literally, anyway.
Ripken, who is expected to make his 2,500th consecutive start Saturday night, isn't impervious to pain. During his incredible streak he has endured a sprained left ankle, a twisted right ankle, a twisted right knee and severe lower back spasms.
Ripken's uncanny threshold for pain is not the only reason he hasn't missed a game for the Baltimore Orioles since May 29, 1982. His tireless work ethic and unwavering consistency have made it easy for the eight managers he's played for to write his name on the lineup card every day.
It's been more than 2 1/2 years since Ripken passed Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable major league record of 2,130 consecutive games. When he takes the field at third base Saturday night against the Oakland Athletics, Ripken's 2,500-game run will be larger than the next 22 current streaks combined.
"Twenty-five hundred? It's a round number and I'm proud of it," Ripken said. "I'm proud I can still go out and play every day. The toughest thing is to keep a fresh approach."
Now 37, Ripken knows there will soon be a day when he will have to fight to hold onto the starting job. That, and the Orioles' quest to get into the World Series for the first time since 1983, keep him motivated.
"When I'm sweating on the field and think I really don't have to work that hard, I start to think that my career will be over before I know it and how good I'm going to feel when we have success," he said. "The rewards keep me running hard."
There was a time last summer when Ripken wasn't certain he could walk, let alone run. A herniated disk in his back was pressing against a nerve that runs down his left leg, and doctors prescribed six to eight weeks of rest.
Ripken immediately rejected the advice, although he almost removed himself from a game in Oakland on Aug. 2. He stuck it out, then singled in his next at-bat and homered the next day.
"That was the hardest injury of my whole career," Ripken said. "The dilemma had nothing to do with the streak. We were in first place and headed for the playoffs -- a situation every baseball player wants to be in -- so I decided I had to play through the pain."
Although he sometimes ached so much that he couldn't sit down in the dugout, Ripken made it through the season. He then spurned offseason surgery, instead working diligently to strengthen his back. The regimen continued this spring, when he hoisted a medicine ball thousands of times before, during and after exhibition games.
"I wish I could put a camera on Cal from the time he walks into the ballpark to the time he leaves," Orioles manager Ray Miller said. "I'd show it to a minor league player and say, `If you want to be a great player like a Lou Gehrig or a Babe Ruth, just do this every day.' His work ethic is just phenomenal."
Ripken was hitting .289 with 13 RBIs in 20 games through Thursday, but as soon as he slips into a slump, detractors of the streak will insist that he voluntarily sit himself down.
"Early on in the streak, the criticism kind of bothered me. Maybe it was immaturity on my part," Ripken said. "I thought it was so unfair. Now that I've dealt with it for a number of years, it doesn't make me angry. It just makes me focus."
The criticism is easier to deal with than back spasms. Ripken was prepared to sit out a game in July last summer before Brady Anderson, his closest friend on the team, begged him to at least test the back in warmups before deciding.
Ripken played the entire game.
"Talk about a guy who can grind it out," Anderson said. "He told me afterwards, `Maybe I thought I really was the Iron Man."'
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