BALTIMORE -- Barring the unforeseen, Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken tonight will play in his 1,308th consecutive game. It should be a night for celebrating a streak of skill, perseverance and outright luck exceeded by only one other in major league baseball history. Instead, Ripken is cruising past Everett Scott and into controversy.

Never mind Lou Gehrig. His record of 2,130 consecutive games played is more than five years away. The worst hitting slump of Ripken's career is now. It is a warm and humid air mass being hit by a cold front of baseball history. A thunderstorm of criticism is building, and Ripken is being forced to take cover.

"Lately you find yourself defending the streak," Ripken said Sunday. "I don't know. I don't look at it as a streak. I just look at it as going out there and playing every game. Everyone else looks at it as a streak. If there was any kind of streak that existed it would just be for the games this year.

"But everyone likes to use the reasoning -- or the excuse -- that you're not hitting real well because you've played 1,300 games and you must be tired. We've played 50 games and I don't think it's fair to say anybody's tired after 50 ballgames. The problems lie somewhere else. There's reasons somewhere else. The streak is not one of the reasons."

Ripken, whose professionalism has elevated him to a position almost above reproach, is being questioned for the first time in his career. Why are you batting .217, Cal? Why are you batting .169 with runners in scoring position, Cal? Cal, why do you have one hit in 22 at-bats with the bases loaded since the beginning of last season? Why did you bat .216 in September-October 1988 and .198 during the same period last season? Why does most of your batting instruction come from your dad instead of batting instructor Tom McCraw?

The questions come from the media. They come from other people in baseball. They come from callers to sports-talk radio shows in Baltimore. All at a time when Ripken is receiving an enormous amount of attention for the streak.

One way to put the streak in perspective is to take a look at the second-longest current one. It belongs to San Diego Padres outfielder Joe Carter. It is 234.

"It's not hard to imagine playing" in 1,308 consecutive games, said New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, who has played in 212. "It's hard to imagine that you don't get some type of injury in there where you're messed up enough that you can't {play} or you're sick. Something. To me, the amazing thing is no injuries in that time. That's wild. Plus, Cal has to get ready every day. It's not like he gets a day to DH."

That's right. None of Ripken's 1,307 consecutive appearances has been as designated hitter, pinch hitter or pinch runner. They've all been starts. And all but 27 have been at shortstop, one of the game's most demanding positions. In addition, Ripken has failed to play the entire game only 12 times, although four of those times have come in the last 19 games as Ripken said he has discovered "sometimes it's good" to come out of games that have been decided before the ninth inning. As a result, he has played 12,897 of a possible 12,939 innings. During the streak's first 904 games he played every inning -- what is believed to be a major league record 8,243 consecutive innings.

Given today's baseball world of night games, coast-to-coast travel and artificial turf, "That was crazy," Mattingly said.

Ripken seems to understand what he is accomplishing. But he doesn't want to be distracted by it.

"If you look back on {the streak} and reflect on it," Ripken said, "I guess it's quite an accomplishment. But I don't know, I have trouble understanding what it all means."

All he knows is "I don't think there's ever been a day where I said I don't want to play. There's been times when I haven't felt as strong, but no matter how many times you take a rest during the season, you're going to have a certain number of those games anyway. If you took every game off when you didn't feel real well, you wouldn't be playing too many games."

So, what would it take for Ripken to call an end to the streak?

"It would have to be a serious injury. If I didn't feel I could contribute at all offensively, or if I felt would be a real liability in the field, I would like to think I would be big enough to say that I can't play."

And don't look for him to make a cameo appearance just to preserve the streak.

"You start the game because you can play nine innings," he said. "If I could only go up there for one inning and then take the rest of the day off, that wouldn't be right. I couldn't do that. That would go against any of the things I believe in and the way I approach the game."

Ripken's approach is a cerebral one. A reverent, comprehensive, almost religious one. When he talks about the game's balance, he means The Game's Balance.

In discussing why he has been able to put together a 54-game errorless streak -- the longest of his career -- while he has been struggling at the plate, he said: "If you're playing a new position and you don't feel good about playing the position, it messes up the balance. All of a sudden in the dugout you're thinking, 'How should I have made that play in the field? Should I have done it a different way?' And then you're not thinking about offense. But if you're familiar with the defensive position and you've played it for a while, it's easy to leave the defense on the field and the bat in the dugout."

That's good, because recently things have not worked as smoothly for him at the plate as they have in the field.

Perhaps he is being forced to pay for those seasons earlier in his career when he hit so well, or perhaps he is being forced to pay for being a centerpiece of a relatively light-hitting team.

"A lot of times you say, 'We're not going to let Cal beat us,' " Mattingly said, "so you pitch him a little differently."

If this happens too often, the pressure to produce offensively can result in bad habits.

Being pitched around is "frustrating," Ripken said. "It's difficult. You still want to have success and help the team and sometimes they're not affording you the same opportunities as they used to. . . . I'm trying to adjust to it, but honestly I haven't found a way to really deal with it. It's an uphill battle sometimes, but it's one that has to be done."

There are those in the organization who are frustrated with his resistence to taking batting advice from McCraw or Manager Frank Robinson, a Hall-of-Famer. There are those outside the organization who blast him for that.

But Robinson remains calm.

"Everybody has their thoughts," as to why Ripken is slumping, Robinson said. "There's a million thoughts. I don't know why. It's just that he's not doing it right now. I don't think he could actually tell you why.

"Are they pitching around him? He's getting pitches to hit. Whether they are the type of pitches he normally gets, he's the only one who can answer that. Is he expanding the strike zone? I haven't seen him swing at a lot of bad balls out of the strike zone."

Meanwhile, Ripken remains comfortable working with his father, who deflects criticism of his son's choice.

"I don't manage this ballclub," said Cal Ripken Sr. "Therefore, that's not my decision. He doesn't need any special tutelage in hitting. He knows the basics of hitting as well as anybody else. Sometimes you just have to ride things out."

Ripken Jr. says he sees signs of improvement. And with the season still young, a burst like Randy Milligan, Joe Orsulak or Mickey Tettleton have had would dramatically improve his statistics. But one wonders whether he needs time or something else -- like a day or two off.

"In my short career thus far it doesn't seem to have ever come to that," he said. "I don't know if it's going in that direction or not, but to this point it's never really come to a point where I thought it was my job to go to the manager and say I need a day off."


1.....Lou Gehrig......2,130

2.....Cal Ripken*.....1,307

tie...Everett Scott...1,307

4.....Steve Garvey....1,207

5.....Billy Williams..1,117

*Streak active.

He'll play his 1,308th consecutive game tonight. Only Lou Gehrig's 2,130-game streak is longer. Ripken hasn't missed a game since the second game of a doubleheader on May 29, 1982.

At 6 feet 4, he's the tallest everyday shortstop in history.

He had a 47-game errorless streak last season and begins play tonight with a 54-game streak. He has nine errors in his last 228 games.

Has led major league shortstops in home runs and RBI six times in the last seven years.

He has started six straight all-star games.

He's the first shortstop to hit 20 or more home runs in eight straight seasons. His 203 home runs as a shortstop is the third-highest total in history, behind Ernie Banks (293) and Vern Stephens (213).

He's one of four active players to hit 20 or more home runs in each of the last eight seasons. Tom Brunansky, Dwight Evans and Dale Murphy are the others.

He had 494 extra-base hits in the eight seasons before 1990.