Baseball's most enduring hero bids farewell

America's national game will never be the same again after the retirement of Baltimore's legendary Cal Ripken Jnr
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Tonight it is his final at-bat in the grizzled old arena of Fenway Park in Boston. Tomorrow the Long Goodbye moves to the most emotive and poignant setting in baseball – "The House that Ruth Built", aka Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, a few miles from where two airliners earlier this month slammed into the World Trade Centre towers and changed America for good. Then half a dozen games back home in Baltimore, amid a farewell that old men will weep over and young children will remember for the rest their lives.

After two decades in the majors, Cal Ripken Jnr is finally calling it quits. The keen young kid of yesteryear has turned into a 41-year-old with cropped grey hair. But the twinkling smile remains, belied by the same intensity in those uncannily pale blue eyes. And in between, he put together a record which, beyond the slightest doubt, will never, ever be broken: 'The Streak' of 2,632 consecutive games which between 1982 and 1998 Ripken played for the Baltimore Orioles.

Since July, the baseball teams which Ripken and the Orioles have visited have produced an astounding array of honours: plaques, medals and trophies by the score, as well as a phial of infield dirt from old Comiskey Park, the legend-encrusted home of the Chicago White Sox until it was torn down and buried under a parking lot in the late 1980s.

In Oakland, the Athletics named an inner-city baseball field after him. In Arlington, the Texas Rangers symbolically "retired" the locker in the visitors' dressing room which bore Ripken's No 8. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays offered a painting and a year's supply of Florida stone crabs – a case of coals to Newcastle given that the recipient plays in Baltimore, whose gastronomic speciality is the incomparable softshell crab from Chesapeake Bay.

If these sound like long service medals to a well-loved and exceptionally loyal employee, they are. Today, it is a small miracle if a player appears in every game of a 162-game season. During the period Ripken was ever-present, more than 1,500 major league players went on the disabled list, while the minority who did not regularly took the odd day off. But not Ripken, whose plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, will surely start with the three-word moniker by which he is known throughout America: The Iron Man.

Maybe, measured against the standards of Ruth, Di Maggio or Gehrig, he wasn't the greatest ever. But he was a damn good player nonetheless – one of just seven in history to have amassed 3,000 career hits and 400 homers, and the only one who did so while playing short stop, the most physically demanding defensive position in baseball.

Shortstops are traditionally small and nimble. Ripken is 6ft 4ins and weighs 220lbs. Detractors used to complain that he "lacked range" – in plain English that he was too slow. But he had two qualities which more than compensated: an uncanny anticipation of where the ball would be hit, and extraordinarily "soft" hands: never, or almost would you see him bobble a ball. No shortstop of his era committed fewer errors. In an uncommonly graceful sport nothing is more graceful than Ripken – even in this ultimate twilight of his career – scooping up an awkward grounder, pirouetting as he flicks the ball to second base, setting up another double play.

All this too, while playing for a pretty moderate team. Ripken's lone World Series win came in 1983, and the Orioles reached the play-offs on only two other occasions, in 1996 and 1997, during his career. Often, like now, they were downright awful.

The nationwide lap of honour is unfolding against the background of a 20-44 team losing record since July, which could see the Os providing their talisman with their own ignominious goodbye, 100-plus losses in a full season.

But figures alone do not explain the Ripken mystique. This is a sport which loves its legends, and its self-appointed but often hollow image as "America's pastime." In the increasingly spoiled and brattish world of major league baseball, he is the honest Joe, the blue collar trusty who, rain shine or sickness, always shows up for work.

In an age when players change clubs like other people change ties, and fans have a hard time remembering who's on the roster, such problems have never arisen with Ripken. Throwback to an imaginary era of pastoral purity and lifelong loyalties, he is a Baltimore area boy who wanted only to play baseball for the local team.

Over the years he had plenty of reasons to leave, such as in 1988, a season even more dreadful than this one, when the club sacked his father as manager; or 1992 when it brusquely dispensed with the services of his brother Billy.

Cal, however, stayed, though he could have made more money elsewhere. He never bitched or moaned in public. He was unfailingly polite and patient, even when answering the most idiotic reporter's question. There must be something of the prima donna in every top-flight sports star. But you'd never guess it from Ripken as he suffers the adoring children gladly, signing autographs by the score before and after every game. And unlike many of his peers, he signs for free.

Cal recently summed up The Streak thus: "The managers sat in the office trying to figure out how to win and wrote my name into the line-up. All I brought to the table every single day was to say: 'I'm here and I want to play, and if you want to put me in the line-up, you can'."

True enough. What he did not say of course was that, as Gehrig's record hove into view, any manager who benched him would have been sacked, or more probably torn limb from limb. Unencumbered by little matters like the fear of relegation, at moments like those baseball fans can let sentiment run riot.

Indeed, in 1995 baseball itself may have been saved by the sentiment which Ripken generated. The previous year, millionaire players and billionaire owners contrived to shut down the game in a strike which wiped out the last two months of the regular season and the 1994 World Series. Baseball desperately needed a fairy story to restore the faith of a disgusted public. As Ripken surpassed Gehrig's consecutive games mark that September, The Iron Man provided one.

Since then, helped by a series of beautiful new "retro" ball parks, and such derring-do as the 1998 home run record race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the sport has recaptured its mystique. After the 11 September tragedy, nothing better symbolised the country's determination to get its life back than the resumption of baseball – and nothing symbolised baseball more perfectly than Cal Ripken, "Old Glory" draped around his shoulders, turning up for work again. Now, in a few days, he will be gone and – just like America after the terrorist bombings – baseball won't ever be quite the same again.