- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.

Cal Ripken walked through the Hall of Fame gallery honoring the members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and saw where his plaque would be.

“Will I be the only one there?” he asked jokingly.

When told that Tony Gwynn, who will join him in the newest Cooperstown class this summer, also will have his plaque there, Ripken pointed to the other side of the room and cracked, “I thought Tony would be in that alcove over there.”

He was enjoying his orientation tour of the Hall yesterday, but it was a surrealistic moment, because Cal Ripken was being shown where he would take his place among baseball’s gods.

There are Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Jimmy Foxx, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays — and soon there will be Cal Ripken.

“There is a magic and a power in this place,” Ripken said when describing the atmosphere as he toured the Hall.

Thanks to Ripken and Gwynn, that magic and power will be celebrated July 29 when the two men who brought magic to the game will be inducted.

Just like 1995, when Ripken was the light in the darkness that surrounded the game in the post-strike atmosphere, he again will be the light shining through the gloom of the summer of steroids. The day Ripken walked the halls of Cooperstown, the New York Times reported that baseball’s steroid investigation is seeking the medical records of former Orioles Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and three other former players.

When asked about the report, Ripken replied, “I guess you get kind of numb to it. It’s an ongoing investigation. I guess this is something that comes up in the search for the truth.”

Ripken said he is both looking forward to and fearing the moment he takes the stage for his induction speech.

“I know it will be emotional,” he said, speaking to a group of Hall employees who gathered to meet Ripken and his wife, Kelly, during their orientation tour. “I was here for Eddie Murray’s induction, and in his speech, he targeted my dad [Cal Ripken Sr.] and the impact he had on his career. He had me bawling like a baby.”

Few players may appreciate the Hall of Fame like Ripken. He grew up in a baseball family, the son of Senior, who began playing in the Orioles organization in 1957 and then managed in the minor league system and coached and managed the major league club as well. Junior played for the same organization for his entire 21-year career, until he retired in 2001, and his brother Billy played five years in the Orioles’ minor league system and spent seven of his 12 major league seasons with the Orioles.

From 1976 to 2001, there always was at least one Ripken wearing an Orioles uniform — and Junior has owned the Aberdeen IronBirds, an Orioles farm club, since 2002. He and the Ripken family are a baseball museum unto themselves. So for someone like Ripken, who has been around the game all his life and revered it so much, the behind-the-scene orientation tour conducted by Hall officials was special, because, he said, “it is part of the process” leading up to his induction.

Ripken was taken into the artifacts storage room under the Hall, where the jerseys, bats, balls and gloves of the gods are kept. Wearing a special pair of white gloves to protect the artifacts, Ripken was handed a first baseman’s mitt that belonged to Lou Gehrig, the great first baseman whom Ripken will be forever tied to after breaking the consecutive games mark of 2,130 and going on to set the new standard of 2,632. Kelly was taken aback at how small the glove was.

“You had to catch everything with two hands then,” said Ripken, talking about the way first basemen stretched to handle throws. Later he said, “It puts you in touch with another era, a connection with another time.”

Ripken also held up Gehrig’s No. 4 jersey from the Yankees star’s last season in 1939. He handled a bat used by Babe Ruth and Rabbit Maranville, a bat so small and thick it was shaped like a large Coke bottle. As he walked by, boxes were stored on the shelves holding uniforms worn by Ty Cobb and other greats, including Ripken’s Orioles mentor, Murray.

Ripken also got a chance to look at some photos of himself in the Hall archives, including some at various stage of his minor league career, wearing different numbers — including 5, a historic Orioles number, while Cal played for Class AAA Rochester.

“I was happy to wear 5,” he said, because it was the number worn by Mr. Oriole, Brooks Robinson. Of course, we all know Ripken wore number 8 during his major league career but only because it was the uniform they put in his locker when he first came up to the major league club in 1981. After all, no one would ever wear No. 5 again for the Baltimore Orioles, and now no one will ever wear No. 8 again.

Ripken also spent a lot of time looking over a very unique piece of memorabilia: the scorebook from one of the most remarkable and legendary games in baseball history. The 33-inning Class AAA contest between Rochester and Pawtucket, which featured Ripken playing for the Red Wings and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs for Pawtucket, started April 18, 1981, went 32 innings until 4:07 a.m. the following day with the score tied 2-2 and started up again on June 23 before Pawtucket won in the bottom of the 33rd inning.

“I remember breaking off pieces of the bench, it was so cold that night,” Ripken said.

Reflecting on that minor league game seemed to put the visit in perspective for Ripken.

“It made me realize how fast your career goes,” he said. “It seems like it just happened.”

One day he is burning a bench in the minor leagues. Another day he is holding Lou Gehrig’s glove. And in between, he has a Hall of Fame career.

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