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Schmuck: O's run of the Hall about to hit a wall

Peter Schmuck

July 31, 2007

Cooperstown, N.Y.

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There are several possible reasons Sunday's Hall of Fame induction ceremony drew an estimated crowd that was 50 percent larger than any other.

The most obvious, of course, is that Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn are two of the best-loved figures in the history of baseball, and that - combined with the fact that Cooperstown is driving distance from Baltimore - probably would have been enough to set an attendance record.

Still, the extent to which Sunday's crowd exceeded all expectations suggests that there were other factors: for instance, the belief among many of the fans who traveled from Maryland that it might be the last opportunity for a long, long time to see an Oriole go into the Hall of Fame.

It's a fair point. The Orioles are well-represented in Cooperstown, which provided several more reasons to make the trip, but it's fair to wonder who will get there next ... and how far fans will be willing to reach to claim a former Oriole as still their own.

This isn't just idle speculation. The "who's next" question floated freely on the sea of orange and black that filled the field behind the Clark Sports Center, and there were no easy answers.

Mike Mussina? He should be a solid candidate if he sticks around a few more years, but he'll be hard to claim because he'll end up with more seasons as a Yankee than as an Oriole.

Roberto Alomar? He'll eventually get in, but he'll undoubtedly go in as a Toronto Blue Jay, and probably won't want to carry some of his Baltimore baggage with him.

Rafael Palmeiro? He could go in as either an Oriole or a Ranger, but he may have to wait awhile.

? He's a great player who is headed in that direction, but the chances of his finishing his career in Baltimore are slim. He's not even a lock to be here at the end of this season.

Nobody even fantasizes anymore about the next Brooks or Cal. The game isn't built for a one-team player anymore, and, even if it were, the next lifelong Oriole to enter the Hall might not show up in Cooperstown until the 2030s.

In that regard, the induction of Ripken did signal the end of an era in Baltimore, which has spawned an even more cynical attitude in some quarters - that Sunday was the last day that it mattered to be an Orioles fan.

The rationale is logical enough, if a little too pessimistic for my taste. Ripken represented all that was good and right with the Orioles, his tenure stretching back into the days of Earl and Eddie. He didn't stretch all the way back to Brooks, but you get the idea.

During the first half of the recent decade of decay, there were disaffected fans who felt that Ripken was the only remaining reason to go to the ballpark. When he retired, the five-year countdown to Cooperstown began, which turned Sunday into an unofficial target date for the revival of the ballclub.

The Orioles have not met that timetable, though the past few weeks have been a little more upbeat than usual. Their recent six-game winning streak notwithstanding, they still seem destined for their 10th straight losing season.

They don't figure to do anything dynamic by today's deadline for making in-season trades without waivers, which might confirm for many that they aren't committed to getting dramatically better by next year.

That's why there were a lot of people in that huge crowd who believe Ripken's Hall of Fame induction was the last hurrah of the once-proud Orioles organization, at least for the foreseeable future.

Maybe it was, but I'm still not ready to admit that the good times are really over for good.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.