Wednesday, January 10, 2007

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BALTIMORE — As a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cal Ripken Jr. will be recognized with a plaque that bears a sculpture of his face and details of his spectacular career.

The plaque will be made of bronze. It might have been more appropriate if it were molded from iron.

What better way to honor an outstanding player who earned the nickname Iron Man? Even if Ripken hadn’t played in a major league record 2,632 consecutive games, he still would have been named to the Hall of Fame yesterday.

But “the streak,” which shattered the mark of 2,130 held by Lou Gehrig, was by far Ripken’s most notable accomplishment and the reason he captured 98.53 percent of the vote.

“To be remembered at all is a very special thing. Having said that, I guess I’ll be remembered for the streak,” Ripken told the Associated Press last week. “I’m very proud of what the streak represents. Not that you were able to play in all those games, but that you showed up to play every single day.”

Ripken took yesterday’s phone call at home, uncertain that his entrance into the Hall was a sure thing.

“There was a sense of anticipation for sure, a sense of nervousness. Then, when I got the call, there was a sense of relief,” he said in a conference call. “I was happy and euphoric and relieved at the same time.”

Ripken was picked by 537 voters and finished with the third-highest percentage behind Tom Seaver (98.84) and Nolan Ryan (98.79).

“I think the amount of support I had is overwhelming, period. I feel very good about that,” he said. “I was just relieved to hear that I got in. I never got caught up in being unanimous or getting the most votes.”

Ripken showed up every day and played well enough that his manager decided the Baltimore Orioles would be best served with him in the lineup. Ripken’s lifetime batting average of .276 does not rank highly among those enshrined in the Cooperstown, N.Y., hall, but he retired in 2002 as the seventh player in major league history with more than 400 home runs and 3,000 hits.

He won two MVP awards, was the 1982 rookie of the year and was named to the All-Star team an AL-record 19 times. The 6-foot-4 Ripken also redefined the shortstop position, proving a tall, free swinger could play the middle of the infield just as well — or better — as a diminutive slap-hitter.

“I love the fact that I’m thought of as having success at shortstop as a bigger person, that maybe I opened up the [door] for the other shortstops,” he told AP. “I didn’t change the game, per se, but my success at the position might have changed the mind-set ever so slightly.”

Former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer, also in the Hall of Fame, said, “If you didn’t have Cal Ripken, you wouldn’t have Alex Rodriguez. Cal paved the way for the rest of the taller, stronger shortstops to play the position.”

Ripken also helped mend baseball’s image in the wake of a damaging work stoppage that canceled the 1994 World Series. In 1995, as he charged toward Gehrig’s record, Ripken signed thousands of autographs, at home and on the road.

When he broke Gehrig’s record on Sept. 6, 1995, Ripken’s impromptu lap around the stadium at Camden Yards provided a feel-good moment for even the most bitter fan.

“The streak brought back a connection between the fans and the game itself,” Ripken said. “I always thought of myself as sort of a social introvert, and I always used the autograph to bring that down. I had all this energy, I felt my responsibility to the media and everything else was taking away that relationship with the fans.”

So he signed autographs for hours after nearly every game in August and September.

“That’s a wonderful memory because it brought the fans into the celebration a little bit more and made that connection a little bit better,” Ripken said. “That was a positive thing to look to in a time when we were all wondering about the game.”

Ripken will be inducted with longtime San Diego Padre Tony Gwynn, who deemed it an honor to be associated with him.

“To go into the Hall with a guy like Cal Ripken is unbelievable, because he embodies to me what it’s about when you go to work every day,” Gwynn said in a conference call after the announcement. “He was in every game, he wanted to win. He just did things the right way.”

The streak is what made Ripken famous, but it will be only a small part of the 80 to 95 words on his Hall of Fame plaque.

“I don’t know if it defines him,” Palmer said. “He was a marvelous player in his own right.”

Ripken, 46, was raised in Aberdeen, Md. His father, Cal Sr., was a longtime coach in the Orioles’ system, so Cal Jr. grew up rooting for Baltimore. Drafted by the Orioles as a pitcher, he played the infield after his father spoke his mind at a meeting between Ripken and team officials.

“My dad diplomatically came in and said, ‘In my experience of developing players, if you start a player out as a [position] player and it doesn’t work out, he can always go back to pitching. But it’s very difficult to go in reverse.’ It was Dad’s way to help me make the choice,” Ripken said. “When they asked me what I wanted to do, I said, ‘I want to play every day. A pitcher only gets to play every five days.’ It’s kind of ironic, sitting where I am now, that I had the desire to be in the lineup every day.”

Cal Sr. died in 1999, but Ripken says his father will be part of the induction ceremony in late July.

“Because he loved the game so much, he taught me to love the game. Since Dad has passed, he’s been on my shoulder watching out for me,” Ripken said. “Going through a Hall of Fame experience, Dad will be with me every step of the way.”

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