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Original Issue


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[degrees]C. What greater legacy can a ballplayer
leave than that?

--Tom Verducci

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MITCHELL LAYTON [Cal Ripken Jr. in dugout with teammates]