Cal Ripken said he was overwhelmed and intimidated by the sea of Baltimore Orioles orange and black when the bus of Hall of Famers pulled in yesterday for his and Tony Gwynn’s inductions into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Overwhelming is the only word you can use,” Ripken said after the ceremony. “I was intimidated. It makes you feel really good to see that people will trek all the way up here for this.”
How about bittersweet?
Why do you think a record estimated crowd of 75,000 and a record number of Hall of Famers were in Cooperstown yesterday?
It certainly seemed as if people showed for what baseball has been, but there was very little sense that better times are ahead.
The game declared itself alive and well yesterday, when Hall of Fame president Dale Petroskey announced commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig had “shared some wonderful news”: A record 717,000 fans went through major league turnstiles on Saturday.
But it is not the same game played by Willie Mays, Brooks Robinson and Lou Brock, who were in attendance yesterday. It is not even the same game in which Ripken and Gwynn made their mark. Not any more.
The day almost had an Irish wake-like quality to it, as if everyone was celebrating the glory of a life that had passed, the likes of which we might never see again.
Orioles fans had to sit in the crowd and see Robinson, Earl Weaver, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Ripken all on the stage together, and wonder, Will there ever be anything like that again in Baltimore?
This is it for the Orioles, the last connection to the glory days of the franchise and the “Oriole Way.” It began with the World Series championship in 1966 and officially came to an end yesterday with Ripken’s induction. There is nothing on the horizon left to look forward to, nothing left to celebrate, unless you look forward to Brian Roberts bobblehead nights.
Ripken gave Orioles fans their money’s worth, with a solid speech that touched on his passion — and business — of promoting youth baseball, saying his work has convinced him the game of baseball “is alive and well.” He showed his heart when he spoke about his family.
Those who know Ripken expected he would struggle talking about his late father, Cal Sr., who died in 1999 and who had such a tremendous influence not just on Ripken, but on the entire Orioles organization as a minor league manager and later Orioles coach and manager.
But it was when he mentioned being a father — not his father — that Ripken broke down. When he spoke about how proud he was of his children, Rachel and Ryan, Ripken choked up and had to stop and compose himself. Although he said he chose his words carefully about Cal Sr., and his mother, Vi, “so I wouldn’t be so emotional,” it didn’t work when he came to speaking about his children.
Ripken had given Ryan a flower earlier to hand to his mother and Ripken’s wife, Kelly, when Ripken spoke about her. “Ryan, I might need a little help transporting this,” Ripken said, and Ryan pulled a flower out of his sportcoat to give to Kelly.
Gwynn also got emotional when talking about his family, talking about his father, who died in 1993. After the ceremony, Gwynn said, “I figured if we had trouble today, it would be when we got to the family part.”
It was personal, but so is what has happened to the game Gwynn and Ripken love. In his speech, Gwynn said, “When you sign your name on the dotted line, it’s more than just playing baseball. … You have a responsibility to make good decisions and show people how things are supposed to be done.”
Not with a syringe. Not with “the cream” and “the clear.”
The steroid controversy was almost the unspoken theme of the 2007 induction. Gwynn admitted as much when asked whether the record turnout was partly because of what both he and Ripken represented to fans.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “Fans feel comfortable with us because they could trust us. Especially in this era of negativity, they felt we did things the right way.”
Finally, when both men were asked yet again about Barry Bonds and his tainted run at Hank Aaron’s 755 career home run mark, the frustration came out. “What a great day for baseball, 75,000 people,” was Gwynn’s response, and Ripken said, “Maybe we could go back to reality tomorrow.”
Here’s some reality — the Cooperstown newspaper, the Freeman’s Journal, published this editorial on the most important day in the town:
“Baseball should protect baseball for good of all. … Five years from now, when he becomes eligible — and every year thereafter — the Baseball Writers Association of America should categorically reject Barry Bonds for Hall of Fame enshrinement.”
I wonder whether Mark McGwire was sitting in a dark room somewhere, watching the ceremony, wondering where he might have sat on the stage.