ATLANTA - Twenty-three years ago in remote Bluefield, W.Va., Cal Ripken officially went to work for the Baltimore Baseball Club Inc. He's been a model company man ever since.
On Sept. 30, 2001, on enemy grounds at Yankee Stadium, Ripken will shake loose the grip that baseball has held over him for as long as he can remember. Age eventually makes quitters of us all, and Ripken has earned a lifetime leave of absence.
"My immediate need is to break the hold that the baseball stadium has on you," he said. "I've been living that life as a kid and as a grown-up and as a dad."
No one has lived the baseball life more completely than Ripken, who was born into the game. Nine other players played in more major-league games, but none as consistently as the Orioles infielder for the past 21 seasons.
The greatest sports figures are so very often defined by numbers, and Ripken boasts some of the best - 2,936 games played; 3,125 hits; 421 home runs; 1,655 RBI; 5,070 total bases; etc. through Thursday.
But the one number that will define Ripken the most is 2,632 - consecutive games played. No personal days. No sick days. No excuses.
That's 502 more than Lou Gehrig. More than twice as many as third-place ironman Everett Scott.
It's so much more than a number. It's an ethic. And it's an ethic sorely absent from most modern athletes who cringe at the slightest twinge of pain or dog it when the stakes aren't high enough.
Ripken never dogged it. He never sat out a doubleheader or whined about an aching hamstring. It's a particular point of pride with him. When asked what he hopes to most be remembered as, Ripken without hesitation responds, "a gamer."
"As someone who loved the game and was willing to come to the ballpark and try to meet the challenge every day," he said. "When you call someone a gamer it kind of means that you come to the ballpark in any kind of environment and under any conditions and circumstances, whether you're playing well or not playing well, and you go out and try to do the best you can. When you're in a team sport, we all count on each other to go out an play."
If they're very, very lucky, the best players - Hall of Fame players - establish legacies that paint the game long after they've left.
Ripken will leave not just one legacy, but several - a shortstop who revolutionized his position; an every-day player who never quit; the ambassador who selflessly restored fan faith in the game after the 1994 players strike.
It was that Ripken - fresh off an All-Star MVP performance - who showed up at Turner Field this week. He signed autographs for more than an hour before the game and did his best Gehrig impersonation by declaring himself "the luckiest man on Earth" in a pregame ceremony.
The long goodbye will extend for the next two months, in every city Ripken touches. He'll step up each time, just as he stepped into a fat Chan Ho Park fastball and lifted it over the Safeco Field fence for one final All-Star feat of heroism and curtain call.
Another memory that mingles among many.
"That's one of the most special things I've ever done," he said about the homer. "I still get goose bumps thinking about that. But since I announced my retirement I generally feel that way all the time about baseball."
The man who never quit will walk away at age 41. But he'll never be gone.
"I don't think you ever really leave baseball," he said. "It's in my blood. Realistically you know that you're going to have to leave it someday, but you're left with all the memories and experiences that you can apply to the next phase of your life."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.
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