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07/10/07 9:18 PM ET

Ironman stands the test of time

Ripken opines on his streak, Cooperstown, past All-Star Games

SAN FRANCISCO -- Three hours before the start of an All-Star Game that would feature the greats of today, one of the greatest of all days took center stage on Tuesday.

Cal Ripken Jr. strode into an interview room to share his thoughts and perspectives, both a timely and ironic appearance.

It's topical because he is within three weeks of a Hall of Fame induction that will validate an ironman 21-year career, best known for a playing streak that united a nation of baseball fans.

And ironic because Ripken was in the house of a man chasing another monumental record, a pursuit that, in contrast, has divided the nation.

Barry Bonds' chase of 755 has not captured, to put it mildly, people's hearts the way Ripken's approach and erasure of 2,130 consecutive games had.

"It is interesting that the fans' reaction has been mixed about the [home run] record," said Ripken, who then alluded to the issue of steroids that has gathered clouds over Bonds' head. "I'm someone [who doesn't] like to jump to any conclusions.

"You don't like to cast judgments, and I would like to assume everything is on the up-and-up until I know differently. So I'm going to go about this [by] wanting it to be good, wanting it to be right and watching it as a great baseball moment."

For two decades, no one provided as many great moments as Ripken did. He played -- every day. And he produced, as the shortstop who broke the existing mold for middle infielders, retiring with 431 homers and 1,695 RBIs.

But his greatest accomplishment -- as unwitting as it was -- was lifting baseball above the morass of an aborted 1994 season and, on one magical 1995 evening, again turning it into a national adhesive.

"All of us who play the game want to feel that we have left our mark a little bit or made a contribution, or made the game a little bit better than it was when you found it," Ripken said. "I think that's everyone's goal and everyone's hope.

"I was proud that I played a role in the '95 season. There was a strike in '94 and baseball was hurting a bit, and a lot of people were angry and maybe not so willing to come back to the game.

All-Star Game Coverage

"It seemed like that streak connected an era of baseball through Lou Gehrig in a way that people started to come back and really look for something good in baseball. It became a celebration, a feel good. A lot of people tell me I played a role in bringing fans back to the game, and that makes me feel good."

Few things can be as natural as Ripken in an All-Star Game setting. After all, he played in 19 of them, every year starting in 1983. His mental scrapbook -- full of Midsummer Classic memories -- is topped by the final one.

July 10, 2001, in Seattle, was one of the last completely carefree days in America. It was the dusk of innocence. Two months before the World Trade Center, and our expectations, fell.

Having earlier announced his postseason retirement, Ripken was the starting third baseman for the American League. But before the first pitch, he was surprised when shortstop Alex Rodriguez nudged him over to his original, legend-making position for the opening inning.

"It was a marvelous tribute, which at the time I really didn't understand. But after it was all over and things worked out, I thought it was a really wonderful tribute," said Ripken, who a bit later would make that All-Star farewell even more spine-tingling.

"First at-bat," he recalled, "and I got a standing ovation. It was an emotionally charged moment ... you step back ... get your composure ... and first pitch I saw I was able to hit it out of the ballpark and hit a home run. I ran around the bases and that was a very memorable time. So the No. 1 moment was my last one."

So far. His enduring No. 1 moment may be the next one, when he formally joins Cooperstown's immortals on July 29.

His induction speech remains a work in progress, and America will see a softer Ripken. Do tears rust an ironman?

"I'll probably lock myself in a room the last week and really start to get my mind around it," Ripken said. "You can start to get your thoughts together and try imagine how it might be, but the factors that come across when you're actually standing out there, I don't think you can totally prepare for.

"And so I'll do the best I can on the substance and the content of the words, then I'll just try to be able to figure out how to handle it emotionally and kind of, you know, get through it. Since my dad [Cal Ripken Sr.] was such a big part of my career and who I became as a baseball player, it's pretty powerful."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.