Cal Ripken Jr.

updated 12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/25/1995 01:00AM

Cal Ripken Jr. has never battled cocaine or abused his wife or dyed his hair Baltimore Oriole orange. The truth is, apart from winning a couple of MVP awards, he had never done much to single himself out—until this year. And even then, all he did was keep on showing up at work. "I cringe when someone calls me a hero," says Ripken. "People make a big deal out of what I did. But I'm only a baseball player. I'm big on keeping things in absolute perspective."

Maybe so. But the nation can be excused if it got a little carried away this past Sept. 6, when Ripken, 35, played in his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old record. Suddenly people everywhere—nurses, mail carriers, short-order cooks—were celebrated for being as reliable as Ripken. And for many fans alienated by baseball's bitter labor dispute, the Streak was an antidote to the Strike, the tonic that revived the national pastime.

Even the self-effacing shortstop was gripped by the euphoria that swept through Baltimore's Camden Yards. Prodded by teammates, Ripken took off on a victory lap around the park, shaking hands with the crowd, which included Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Joe Dimaggio. The ovation lasted 22 minutes and made spectators Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks teary-eyed. "It felt like a dream," admits Ripken. "Everything slowed down and became glossy. I kept thinking, 'Is this really happening? Or am I drifting off?' "

Ripken has since returned to earth—and is spending the off-season with his family in Hunt Valley, Md. "I think this is the happiest time of year for my wife, Kelly, and the kids," he says. "I'm there every night to put Rachel [6] and Ryan [2] to bed." Cal has never looked at the tapes of his big moment, and you get a sense that he's still trying to hold it at arm's length. "It wasn't me the fans were honoring," he says. "People just wanted to show how much they loved the game." Perhaps, but not everyone would agree. "In my book, Cal Ripken is a hero," says Aaron, who ought to know. "He broke a record a lot of people thought no one would ever touch."

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