With Hall call near, Ripken still humble

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Ten days before his induction into the Hall of Fame, Cal Ripken got on a telephone hundreds of miles from Cooperstown yesterday and took a look backward instead of ahead. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised, because this is a man very conscious of his roots and God-given ability to play baseball.

Typically, Ripken talked about his late father, Cal Sr., and his own early days as a player at Aberdeen High School when he seemed about as far from fame and glory as any athlete could be.

And by discussing his failures rather than such successes as his monumental streak of playing in 2,632 consecutive games for his hometown Orioles and impending elevation to baseball’s Promised Land, Junior reminded us anew of his innate decency and humility — qualities often found wanting among today’s superjocks.

Speaking on a teleconference call from Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he was conducting instructional sessions for children, Ripken recalled the distant days when he was just a kid himself — and one to whom rounders remained a puzzling pursuit despite his old man’s long involvement with the game.

“My freshman year in high school [1975], I hit .100. [or] something like that,” he said ruefully. “I was batting ninth and bunted a lot. In fact, I was surprised when I didn’t get the bunt sign. And you know, that leaves a scar. Those things stay with you.”

And help keep you from thinking you’re the greatest player ever to put on spikes.

Ted Williams, arguably the greatest slugger since Babe Ruth, once said hitting a baseball was the hardest thing to do in sports. Ripken probably would agree. Despite his 3,184 hits and 431 home runs, his batting average over 20-plus seasons was just .276 — and he changed stances more than a politician trailing in the polls. In other words, he failed at the plate 72 percent of the time.

That, too, will keep a guy humble, or should anyway.

By no means did this detract from Ripken’s value to the Orioles and major league baseball in general. He played the game the right way, what used to be called “the Oriole Way,” and always put his team ahead of himself. That’s the kind of attitude crusty old Cal Sr. inspired and demanded from every man who played for him in his long career as a coach and manager with the O’s and their farm clubs.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think of him,” Junior said of his father, who died of lung cancer in 1999. “When I’m instructing kids, the words seem to come out of my mouth that Dad used to say — many times it almost seems like he’s there watching me do it. It’s a great memory and a great feeling to think of Dad in that way.”

And surely Cal Sr. will be on the scene in one sense at Cooperstown when Junior faces a throng of perhaps 15,000 Orioles fans a week from Sunday afternoon and tries to express his thoughts coherently.

“When it comes to the induction and I try to articulate his importance in my life, I’m sure I’ll start to get a little more emotional,” Cal conceded. “He’s a big reason why I was able to become the player and person I am. It’s going to be hard to talk about him on the day of the speech. I just hope I can get it out.”

He will. Junior usually comes through in the clutch.

Earlier, Ripken said he was embarrassed by all the praise heaped on him since his election in January, “but now that we’re in the homestretch [of his journey to Cooperstown], I feel absolute terror.” He subsequently modified his state of mind to “anxiety,” then admitted he will “experience a great sense of relief” when it’s over.

No surprise there. Ripken is a guy who doesn’t enjoy the spotlight unless it’s shining on his team at the same time. (Except during such ignominious indignities as a 21-game losing streak at the start of the season, as in the silent spring of 1988.)

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