To the people who know Cal Ripken best, this streak of 603 games and 5,457 consecutive innings is irrelevant.

"Baseball is just about the most important thing in his life," Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Larry Sheets said. "He's not the type to go play golf on the afternoon of a night game."

Neither is he likely to go out for lunch, shopping or sightseeing. He has not seen Seattle from the Space Needle or Manhattan from the World Trade Center.

His tan covers forearms and neck. Much of his wardrobe is by Adidas. If others know steak joints and nightclubs, he prefers coffee shops and hotel rooms. He can't dance.

"During the season, I don't do anything else," he said. "That's it. I don't even like getting up and making an appearance for the club. That stuff is for the winter."

He won't turn 26 until this summer, but he already has established himself as one of the remarkable performers in baseball history. If he weren't playing every inning of every game, he still would be special, because he plays a position developed by smaller, faster men and he plays it well.

He would be special because, in four full seasons, he has averaged 27 homers and 98 RBI, and teamed with his best friend, Eddie Murray, to give the Orioles the game's best two-man offense.

He also has signed thousands of autographs, answered hundreds of fan letters and maintained much of the boyish enthusiasm he had at 23. Yet, in the last couple of seasons, two topics have surrounded him.

The position.

The streak.

Each year, the Orioles have an internal debate about a seemingly eternal question: Should Ripken be moved to third base, where there would be less emphasis on range and more on home runs? Owner Edward Bennett Williams has said the switch makes sense, and although General Manager Hank Peters won't say it publicly, he apparently feels the same way.

Ripken and Manager Earl Weaver bristle at the suggestion.

"You're talking about one of the greatest shortstops who ever played," Weaver said. "Not just because of his hitting, either. He's one of the best defensive players ever, and I don't understand why people can't see that. What he did in 1984 American League record 583 assists has never been done before."

Ripken, who almost never snaps at anyone, bites off words when asked how he would like a trial run at third base.

"I'm sick of the whole thing," he said. "Ultimately, I'm going to do what's asked of me. It's not for me to decide where I play. But, yes, it's a matter of pride that I've done well at shortstop when so many people said I couldn't play there.

"I don't know. It gets so tiresome just talking about it. In a game where statistics are so important, they seem to be overlooked in my case. No one thinks you're a shortstop unless you're flashy and look like you're getting to a lot of balls. What people don't understand is that all the plays are routine if you're playing where you're supposed to be playing."

Which is the problem. He prides himself on being in the right spot at the right time. He sits in on pitcher-catcher meetings, so he'll know what pitches will be thrown in what situations. He watches hitters' stances and adjusts.

And in 1985, when the Orioles pitchers weren't throwing the balls where they wanted to throw them, Ripken looked bad. Not because he made 26 errors (the same number as in 1984), but because he missed fielding dozens of grounders by inches.

"I hear all that," Weaver said. "That's just wrong. He has good range. I'd move him in a minute if I had someone who could do better. Just go out and find a shortstop who'll hit me 30 home runs and drive in 110 runs.

"I will say this: If I had former Oriole Mark Belanger, I'd use him as a defensive substitute in late innings. But I don't have Mark Belanger."

Likewise, the streak has become a matter of pride, and Weaver said Ripken won't sit down again until he asks to sit down.

He hasn't missed a game since May 29, 1982 (Floyd Rayford started), or an inning since June 5, 1982.

The Orioles believe no one ever has played so many consecutive innings, and asked baseball researcher L. Robert Davids to check it out. He concluded that the two longest consecutive-innings streaks in major league history had been by two former members of the Boston Red Sox, Buck Freeman and Candy LaChance.

Freeman, a first baseman, played every inning of 534 games, between July 28, 1901, and June 5, 1905. LaChance, an outfielder, played every inning during the 1902-03-04 seasons. Ripken's streak is longer than either.

"The biggest myth is that it's a 600-game streak," Ripken said. "It's a 162-game streak, then five months off. The drain is on you mentally when people keep asking about it and you think about it. I still say that, physically, anyone can go out and play 162 games a year. I know I can do it because I prepare myself for it."

The streak could have ended after the second game of last season when he sprained his left ankle. The morning after the injury, the ankle was severely swollen and Ripken was given crutches.

That afternoon, while the Orioles played an exhibition game at the Naval Academy, Ripken took several rounds of treatment in Baltimore, and the next night played with the ankle heavily wrapped.

"People made a big deal out of it, but I always thought I could play," he said. "It might have been tough if I hadn't had the day off, but it was fine by game time. If I ever feel I can't perform, I won't try. If I hurt my arm, I'm not going to go out there because I might have to make a throw in the eighth inning, and if I can't, I'm hurting the team.

"But if you're talking about not playing on a day when I don't feel like playing, no, I won't do that. Everyone has heard stories about guys feeling their absolute worst who go out and get four or five hits. I don't want to pass up a four-hit game."

Teammates and friends still call him "Bub" because his dad, Orioles coach Cal Ripken Sr., is "Cal."

But in his fifth big league season, he is growing up. He's in the third year of a four-year, $4 million contract, and when he starts to talk about an extension next winter, the numbers will be mind-boggling.

He also has a steady companion these days and is about to move into his dream home in a Baltimore suburb.

Still, he has been coming to ballparks since he was a year old, and the ballpark is the place he feels most natural.

"This is a funny team," he said. "Eddie wasn't with us for a week, and we lacked his presence. It's a strange thing, but we're a different team when he's not here, whether he's hitting or not. I'd like to be thought of the same way."