Punching in

The sweat is running through Cal Ripken Jr.'s eyebrows, into his eyes, and it's making him squint.

It is just so surrealistically hot, like someone is burning the edges of this scene for a commemorative plaque. And there is Cal, eyes stinging like any man, body temp rising like any mortal.

Cal hasn't emerged yet from the sink area because he's still freshening up--preparing to emerge and answer questions about being superhuman.

When he walks in, his head is hung downward because being the center of attention is downright embarrassing. The man who will probably break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games-played record this September takes off his cap and slides his hand across the hair that isn't there anymore.

There is this fleeting thought: I wish everyone in the whole world was just like Cal Ripken Jr.

Of course, then there'd be nobody left to bitch about. And we'd all be scaring each other with our bizarrely blue eyes.

There'd be no talk shows, because everyone would revere his mom and fear his dad and show up for work every day, even if he's tired or bored and it's 105 degrees in Arlington, Texas, and you haven't had a workday off in a decade.

But there is only one Cal Ripken Jr.
More so than in the way there is only one guy who gets to be president, or one player like Reggie Jackson. It's just as there is only one summer when you're 18.

This man has his hands behind his back, talking about how embarrassed he is that he's being compared to Lou Gehrig.

Sorry, but who else are we gonna compare you to, Cal? "I'm not as good a ballplayer as Lou Gehrig," he says. "I think that's one of the toughest things about the whole process [leading up to breaking the record]--being compared to Lou Gehrig.

"To me, Lou Gehrig is one of the best ballplayers who ever lived, and I'm not.

"He drove in a lot of runs. I guess we share the same desire to want to play. But I didn't set out to do anything like Lou Gehrig."

During all the hoopla surrounding his unplanned quest for the record, Ripken has avoided the subject. "People have given me books and photos, but I have not read them," he says. "I appreciate them. I have put them away where I can enjoy them at a later time. "To read them now I feel would be counterproductive to my approach."

Could you actually change your approach unknowingly?
"I am fearful of it," he admits.
The closest the streak came to ending was back in '85, he says. He twisted his ankle and wouldn't have been able to play, but there was a rare off day in the schedule. Then, in June '93, he wrenched his knee in Seattle during a brawl when he slipped while protecting his pitcher, and ended up under a pile of guys.

But Cal didn't miss a single game.
"I am surprised and embarrassed it has gone this far," he says, like a popular senior apologizing to peers for a perfect attendance award.

"Sometimes it makes me feel uncomfortable--to get so much attention just for showing up."

Meanwhile, down the hall in the NL clubhouse, there is still nothing but air inside Darren Daulton's uniform. Ditto for Phillies teammate Lenny Dykstra. They will not even show up this day for All-Star batting practice. Darren will not even call in with an excuse. They sometimes bitch because they have to be here. They bitch because they have to be anywhere. The glare of the spotlight is as toasty as the heat index this day. And most of them melt at one time or another.

Not Cal. The last two-and-a-half years have been so intense. This year, in addition to regular clubhouse interviews, the team set up press conferences in every city. "I thought that was rather presumptuous at first," Ripken says. "Then I realized there are times when I would be 0-for-8 over two nights, and I wondered if there was a need to repeat myself so many times [about the streak]."

The streak permeates his work hours to the point that it's impossible to escape, even in a small grocery store or pizza joint back home. "No matter where I go," he says, "there is someone who sees my face and says, 'You're the guy who has played all those games.'"

At this point, one of the seven jillion Japanese reporters tailing Hideo Nomo's every bodily emission interrupts to ask, "Pardon me, may I ask a question?" and it sounds real awkward in a way that would make some players make fun of her.

Cal softens even more than usual.
"Yeah, sure, go ahead," as if coaxing a scared puppy down a short flight of stairs.

"What special strategy will you be using to hit against the great Nomo?"
Cal Ripken Jr. does not smirk.
Some people--Cal included--say well, all he does is show up for work every day. Some people like to point out how ballplayers only have to show up for work during part of the year.

Well, actually that year is eight months long, with scant days off from the day they report to camp to the day they report to the deer lease. And during those eight months, there are no Saturday nights with the kids, no Sunday after-church Luby's, or all the other mundane stuff people in regular life don't cherish quite so much.

Darren Daulton called me after the season last year to complain about something I had written about him. I did not return the call on the answering machine. Ignoring complaints is not my style, but at the time, I just didn't care to take the pressure of having someone I covered chew my butt. For real.

So how can I fault Daulton for not showing up due to personal and professional pressures? In his and Dykstra's defense, those two would normally play a baseball game with a railroad tie lodged in their spines.

And who can say Dykstra was wrong for ditching the workout, too, as he claimed, to visit his mom undergoing chemotherapy?

Cal's own flesh, brother Billy, who came through the Rangers' organization at one point, could be a real odd butthead at times. Mom Val put up with so much more from Billy, the boys told me once.

Having an older sister whose academic legacy was firmly in place made me more of a moron, too--ask anyone who has ever seen me after two beers on an empty stomach when someone fires up the karaoke.

It couldn't have been easy to be Cal's brother.
And who among us hasn't called in sick just once because they were just too tired or depressed or wanted to go to the lake or get rid of a hangover?

Or take a kid to the doctor?
The point is, to snap and break, screw up and lag off is human. To miss work for legitimate reasons is human.

And, for a very, very long time, Cal Ripken Jr. never has.