BALTIMORE -- Cal Ripken had such an exceptional fastball in high school, most scouts projected him to be a pitcher. The lanky right-hander preferred to be an infielder, for reasons that should surprise no one.
"It turned out pretty ironic," Ripken said recently. "When the choice was ultimately given to me, I made it on the basis that I wanted to play every day, not knowing I'd be able to play so many games."
So, so many games.
Only five players in major league history participated in more games than Ripken, who will play in his 3,001st and final game Saturday night.
The Baltimore Orioles' star amassed some very impressive numbers during his 21-year career, none more noteworthy than 2,632 - the figure that has supplanted 2,130 in baseball lore as the definition of durability and stability.
For all his hits and homers and Gold Gloves and MVP awards, Ripken will forever be known for playing in 2,632 consecutive games from 1982-98. He probably could have gone even longer, but voluntarily ended the run because of the attention it received - not all of it positive.
"Sometimes the streak needed to be managed, especially when I wasn't swinging the bat too well or the team wasn't playing too well," he says. "Issues would come up and a finger would get pointed in my direction, people saying to take an off day for the team or for the benefit of myself."
Ripken always opted to play through the slumps, just like he did this week when he went through a frustrating 0-for-33 stretch, the longest drought of his career.
"My approach always was very simple and forthright: My job was to come to the ballpark and be available to play," he said.
Even detractors of The Streak couldn't argue with that philosophy, or with the determination it took to play in every single game for 17 straight seasons.
"I think the streak should have never gone as long as it did, but I think we all marvel that he was able to play in 2,632 games in a row," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who, like Ripken, spent his entire career with the Orioles.
On Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken passed Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable standard of 2,130 straight games.
His run to history came after baseball was tarnished by a work stoppage that went from 1994 into the spring of the 1995 season.
"Playing that many games in a row is unbelievable. It was unthinkable," former Toronto manager Cito Gaston said. "I know that Cal went out there plenty of days when he shouldn't have. But it came at a time when baseball needed it."
Roger Clemens, one of the fiercest competitors in the game today, gasped when he nearly plunked Ripken with a pitch as the infielder was closing in on Gehrig's record.
"I remember one at-bat, I messed up on an inside pitch on him. Threw it by his hands or something," Clemens recalled. "You almost had to hold your breath as a player. You want to be aggressive and pitch to him, but the guy's never been hurt, and when he has been hurt he's played - with injuries that other guys would never play with."
When Ripken was in high school, no one projected him to be as effective on the mound as Clemens. Yet, as a senior at Aberdeen (Md.) High, Ripken went 7-2 with a 0.70 ERA, leading his team to victory in the Maryland Class-A title game with a 17-strikeout performance.
"I really developed as a pitcher," Ripken recalled. "My stuff was pretty good, my arm was getting stronger. I was gaining size."
But his father, Cal Sr., a coach with the Orioles at the time, and then-manager Earl Weaver watched Ripken perform in the batting cage and decided the teen-ager had a better shot making it as an infielder.
Young Ripken was delighted with the decision.
"Ultimately," he said, "I didn't see myself playing professional ball one out of every five days."
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