CLEVELAND - The Streak has to stop. Cal Ripken is 37 years old, with a back to match. He can not continue to carry on as if he were immortal.
Eventually - and soon - something has got to give. If it is not Ripken's pride, it could be his team's performance. What has long been an awkward situation may turn ugly.
For 15 years, Baltimore's Iron Man has exemplified baseball virtue. Now, his unrivaled dependability is increasingly interpreted as obsession, and his aversion to rest seems less noble and more selfish.
When the Orioles were staggering through September, undermined by Ripken's stiff back and his ailing bat, the question of his priorities gave rise to disturbing questions.
Was Ripken compromising Baltimore's playoff chances by refusing to rest his back during the regular season? Had preserving The Streak taken precedence over winning the World Series?
''Ripken is hurt, and he's hurting the Orioles,'' Baltimore Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal wrote last month, touching off a torrent of talk-show debate. ''If he doesn't rest his back before the postseason, he might even hurt them when it counts the most.''
Arguments go on
Ripken never did give his back a break - and hit .156 in September - but he has managed to hit .435 in the playoffs. He struck a two-run homer in Baltimore's 5-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians Thursday night, and has also distinguished himself on defense.
Yet the argument rages on, unresolved.
''I thought he played quite well at times,'' Orioles General Manager Pat Gillick said of Ripken's season. ''I thought at the end of the season, the number of games wore him down.''
Two seasons after surpassing Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak of 2,130, Ripken's record total has reached 2,478. Houston's Jeff Bagwell, No. 2 among active players, has played in 351 straight games. If Ripken retired tomorrow, Bagwell could not overtake him unless he played all 162 games every year until 2011.
But Ripken shows no inclination to sit, and no recognition that his insistence on playing through pain could potentially prove damaging to his ballclub. Ripken is not so naive as to take his health for granted, but neither has he been all that candid about it.
Under one of baseball's more peculiar arrangements, Ripken's medical records are not available to Orioles executives. This effectively makes the third baseman the final arbiter of whether he's well enough to play. He says he almost walked off the field in August in Oakland because of his back pain, and has acknowledged that he might need off-season surgery. Still, he has resisted the opportunity to extend his streak less strenuously, as a designated hitter.
Ripken, innocently, claims the final lineup call still belongs to manager Davey Johnson. Johnson, pragmatically, says he could not bench Ripken without Ripken's consent.
''I think if Davey felt someone else could do the job better than I, he would have put someone else in there,'' Ripken said. ''When the streak does end, it will have to be dealt with. But it will be done for the right reason - because of injury or because someone was more deserving.''
If he really wants to help ...
Here, Ripken skirts the real issue. The strongest reason for him to sit is if it would make him fresher when he's needed most. Historically, Ripken's production declines as the season progresses. Presumably, he would benefit from an occasional day off.
It wouldn't mean he was finished; merely that The Streak was.
''It was sad in a way, that on the heels of one of the greatest seasons the Orioles have had, when we were in first place from the first to the last day of the season, that we had this unnecessary distraction,'' Ripken said. ''It was something that was exhausting to deal with individually, but it goes with the territory.''
At 37, Cal Ripken doesn't cover as much territory as he once did. He moved from shortstop to third base this season, in the first significant concession of his career.
A bigger concession beckons. The Streak has to stop.
ASSOCIATED PRESS PLAYOFF COVERAGE: AL | NL