Retirement apparently hasn't disrupted Cal Ripken Jr.'s game.

The former Orioles great can still sidestep controversy and offer carefully measured responses to the media like a seasoned pro.

While at baseball's winter meetings here yesterday to discuss Ripken Baseball's new partnership with the synthetic surfacing company FieldTurf, Ripken inevitably was peppered with questions about the upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame vote.

A first-time candidate after the required five-year wait, Ripken, along with retired San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, is considered a virtual lock to be enshrined into Cooperstown on July 29.

The intrigue, however, surrounds another noteworthy first-timer on the ballot, former St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Athletics first baseman Mark McGwire, whose candidacy has been clouded by suspicion of steroid use.

"I understand the interest and, I guess, the debate that's going on right now," Ripken said. "I personally sit back and don't want to be drawn into that. I don't feel comfortable judging anyone in that particular case. I'm not qualified."

Ripken said he expects the McGwire issue to continue until results are announced Jan. 9, and obviously it would be the primary story line in July if McGwire is named on 75 percent of the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballots.

But Ripken said he's not concerned about the outcome, even if it means the spotlight on McGwire overshadows his big day in Cooperstown.

"It is what it is," Ripken said. "It's going to play out however it is going to play out. I'm not upset about it. I don't look at this as an opportunity to gain attention by any means."

Ripken, who had 3,184 hits and 431 home runs in his 20-year career, said he doesn't compare his statistics to other players of his generation, such as McGwire, who hit 583 homers.

"A lot of people say, 'Do your 431 home runs pale in comparison to some of these other inflated numbers?' " Ripken said. "But I honestly don't get into comparing my numbers. To me, it was try to do the best you can, fulfill a dream and at the end you are content that you did as much as you could. So it's not a matter of measuring your numbers against somebody else's."

However, when asked if steroids-aided statistics should be considered "tainted," Ripken offered as critical a statement as he is willing to make.

"I don't know to what extent [steroids] worked ... " Ripken said. "But if all your numbers are produced by those sorts of means, then I say, 'Yeah, they are artificial numbers.' "

Not exactly a headline-grabber, but Ripken also showed some contempt for the steroids era, albeit adding in his own positive spin.

"I think we all were very disappointed that steroids came flying out into the game of baseball; the integrity of the game was in question," he said. "Then there was good reaction on the side of Major League Baseball and the players association to put these policies in place to help restore the integrity of the game. I am very happy it is moving in that direction."

Since his retirement in 2001, Ripken has tried not to think much about the Hall of Fame. But he acknowledges that he's considering it more and more now.

"You do have to prepare for it in some sense in your mind, but it doesn't do you any good to go down that path until it actually happens," Ripken said. "But the closer you get to the possibility, the more people are certainly talking to you about it."

He said he's not made any special plans for the morning of the announcement, but since he won't be getting into Baltimore from a business trip until late the night before, he expects he'll have a low-key day.

Once announced, he'll have six months to come up with a speech, and try to encapsulate his career into a few minutes. At least he has a point of reference. Ripken was at the induction ceremony of his buddy Eddie Murray in 2003.

"I was a little bit worried when he was up there giving a speech. It was not his favorite thing for Eddie to do, stand up there and talk," Ripken said. "But I was mesmerized by him going back into his history and thanking all of the people that were instrumental in his life. It was an emotional roller coaster and it was a wonderfully positive human experience."

Ripken expects his own to be equally as positive, no matter who joins him on the dais. What Ripken says, whom he thanks and how it all comes together, however, remains to be seen.

"I think the words will start to flow, the concepts and the people will start to come out by themselves," he said. "I am not going to force the process."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com