For the past 30 years, the final trek to 3,000 hits has been one of the sweetest, but also homeliest and most embarrassing, marathons in sports.

That's why Cal Ripken's assault on that milestone, at a moment when he boasts the best batting average and slugging average of his career, goes so far outside normal sports experience as to be almost miraculous.

Every few years, attended by fanfare and season-long countdowns, our favorite players approach the finish line of this monumental career-long test of skill and endurance. When our hero finally crosses, his ticket to the Hall of Fame -- and a first-ballot invitation -- will almost surely be punched.

Yet the final weeks of those chases to 3,000 often resemble a parched man crawling across the desert sand toward an oasis. Once he gets there, he'll drink his fill, then collapse -- the course run, the deed finally done. Lou Brock, Al Kaline and Rod Carew retired after their 3,000-hit years, while Eddie Murray, George Brett and Robin Yount lasted one more season.

What Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn are enduring now, staggering to the Big Knock despite injuries or age, is the typical scenario. We cheer and appreciate them. But we also wince and, sometimes, want to turn our eyes.

Gwynn has missed half his team's games. According to the Padres trainer, one more injury to his tender left calf muscle will end Gwynn's season and postpone his reaching the milestone. That medicine ball Tony's smuggling inside his jersey isn't helping matters either.

"I'm missing all the fun," lamented Gwynn at the All-Star Game last week. With his supposedly impoverished and talent-depleted Padres red-hot, Gwynn and his .328 average were missing a pennant race. "It's killing me to sit and watch everybody else play their brains out and I can't help 'em."

Gwynn has returned to the Padres lineup. Last night he went 2 for 5, leaving him 10 shy of 3,000.

As for Boggs, who is 11 hits shy, his .288 batting average nicely disguises the truth -- a pathetic .361 slugging average that would, for example, rank last among all Orioles, including Delino Deshields. Once a feared hitter, Boggs now has one homer in 227 at-bats and says he would "like to play again next year," but "doesn't know if anybody" wants him.

For the sake of No. 3,000, achieved by only 21 players, many a great has ignored a chance to retire with his halo set perfectly straight above his head.

Just three years ago, Boggs rode around Yankee Stadium on the back of a police horse celebrating his first World Series title. Then, he was still a valuable .311-hitting regular on the game's best team. Only last season, Gwynn had the fourth-best slugging percentage of his career and helped the Padres to their first National League pennant in 14 years. Just goes to show, you never know when you'll blow a wheel.

If great players think it's tough to get their 3,000th hit, they should imagine how painful it is for us to watch them. Last Sunday in Cooperstown, as baseball hugged Brett and Yount, it was easy to forget how long both those stars had to hang on to notch their 3,000th hit. Yount hit .247, .260 and .264 -- and slugged under .400 -- in his final three years before getting No. 3000 in 1992. That same season, Brett reached the plateau after three mediocre years as a DH, including a sickly .255 season in '91.

Proud men, it seems, will do almost anything for immortality, even eat their pride. Kaline lost half his power, but kept playing. Brock hit .221 in his penultimate season, but came back to hit .304 and get his 3,000th in his last season. In his final season, Carew slugged .345, but had his final big moment. Pitchers slug .345.

All this should redouble how much we cherish what Ripken is doing now. After a career as the ultimate dutiful, high-character, overachieving plodder, he's in danger of becoming downright romantic. On Friday, he drove home the Orioles' only run in a 1-0 win. On Saturday, he had two home runs. Carew only had two home runs in 443 at-bats during his final season when he finished with 3,053 hits.

On Sunday, after another double and homer, Ripken was beaned in the temple by a 94 mph fastball. For a split-second, it looked like tragedy. But the blow -- in the perfect spot to maim or kill -- was glancing, not flush.

"He's been comfortable up there and raking it all series," said Angels reliever Troy Percival. "I'm trying to move him off the plate."

That's about as close as a pitcher will ever come to saying that, if the hitter can't dive out of the way, too bad.

"The guy almost ended [Ripken's] career right there," Albert Belle said afterward. "I was in Minnesota when Dennis Martinez hit Kirby Puckett and it ended his career. I kind of had a flashback to that."

One inning later in the 11th, Ripken batted with the bases loaded and two outs. As theater, the moment was so preposterously overwrought that it could only work for one reason: It was actually happening.

On two quick strikes, Ripken looked uncomfortable, almost bailing out. But he fouled off pitches and worked the count full. With each pitch, he seemed more at ease. In the span of seven pitches, he had recovered whatever that nameless thing is that sometimes gets stolen from you -- for days or forever -- after you've been, as Ripken said, "hit in the coconut."

Ripken scalded the next pitch into left to win the game.

In recent decades, only one player has come screeching toward his 3,000th hit as Ripken is now, hitting .324 and slugging .592 with 15 homers and 21 doubles in just 254 at-bats. At age 40, Paul Molitor had 225 hits and batted .341 in his landmark season. So, at 38, Ripken, who needs only 40 more hits, has not gone beyond the limits of what's possible.

Ripken can slump. Or get hurt. Or misplace the magic that he and coach Terry Crowley have concocted. Who cares? That's boring stuff. Everybody gets old and fades -- even the greatest like Gwynn and Boggs with their 15 batting titles. That's not news. Something else can happen, too. Ripken can keep hitting. Keep on hitting better -- by all normal measures -- than he ever has in his career. For how long? Using Molitor as a model, he might conceivably have two or three more unexpectedly good seasons.

But who knows? Not Ripken. Not us. Not the pitchers who are so scared of him that they throw at his old gray coconut. And that's the fun of it.