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For fans in '95, Ripken's pen was mightier than his bat

Cal Ripken Jr.'s career speaks for itself.

The 3,184 hits. The 431 home runs. The two American League Most Valuable Player awards. The historic string of 2,632 consecutive games played that initially assured his place among the immortals. It will all be on the bronze plaque soon to be cast for display in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

It's going to be hard to fit much else on that plaque, but I hope there still is room to mention what I believe was the most significant achievement of Ripken's amazing career. He set the single-season record for autographs signed during the 1995 season and almost single-handedly persuaded a nation of disaffected fans to give baseball another chance after the labor dispute that wiped out the 1994 World Series.

Everybody remembers the famous victory lap of 1995, when Ripken added a very personal touch to the historic night he broke Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record, but Ripken had begun repairing the broken relationship between the sport and its fans much earlier.

He stayed late into the night, game after game, signing every baseball, every autograph book, every scorecard that was proffered in just about every American League city. The lines started forming at the Orioles dugout in the seventh inning and sometimes stretched halfway around the ballpark. Some nights he stood there until well after midnight, while exasperated stadium workers tapped their feet and waited to lock up.

The Major League Baseball Players Association had encouraged players to be more engaging with the fans after the lengthy work stoppage, but nobody told Ripken to take the concept to a whole new level. Somehow, he just sensed that his pursuit of Gehrig's record might be the perfect vehicle to drive baseball out of the darkness.

"I'm not trying to take on any great responsibility for the game of baseball," he said at the time. "It's not part of any plan."

It really wouldn't have mattered if it was. The important thing was the new link he was forging with each impromptu autograph marathon.

"When you talk about Cal Ripken, just think where we are today and where we were in 1995," commissioner Bud Selig told USA Today recently. "I will always be grateful to Cal because he started that task of recovery and made it a lot easier. No one should ever diminish his great role in baseball."

I agree, which is why I was so disappointed when a Hall of Fame voter announced a few days ago that he had sent in a blank ballot as a protest against baseball's so-called steroid era. I guess the point was to penalize all baseball players for their supposed complicity in the tawdry performance-enhancement scandal that dates to the early 1990s, except that this particular display of self-righteousness missed the point and - in exchange for a dubious moment in the media spotlight - painted Ripken and Tony Gwynn with the same ugly brush that was meant for Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.

Sometimes in our enthusiasm to seek justice, we forget to see the whole picture ... in this case the picture of a weary Cal Ripken, standing on rubber legs in the gathering darkness because there still were a few hundred fans who wanted his signature.

No one should be surprised that Ripken didn't become the first unanimous choice for the Hall of Fame. There has never been a unanimous choice, and there are always a few voters who believe that if the rest of baseball's greatest legends were not inducted with a unanimous vote, why start now.

I don't buy that, at least not in the case of a slam-dunk like Ripken. If it takes Carlton Fisk a few ballots to get to Cooperstown, so be it, but I can't imagine anyone looking at Ripken's resume or Gwynn's eight batting titles and making a legitimate case for leaving the box next to either one of their names unchecked.

Of course, I was there on many of those nights in the summer of 1995, looking down from the press box at the serpentine line of fans stretching down the right field line. I watched as Ripken wrote his name over and over until I'm sure his hand ached and his feet burned.

He won them back, one fan at a time, and for that alone he deserves his bronze plaque in upstate New York - even if it fails to mention that he once saved baseball from itself.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.comThe Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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