COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.Cal Ripken Jr.'s lifelong love affair with Baltimore and baseball, which began at the knee of his father and ran through 20 years of playing and one incredible streak, will reach another pinnacle today - the Hall of Fame.

"It still feels a little like a fantasy," Ripken said yesterday morning.

His accomplishments go well beyond the record of 2,632 consecutive games - a streak that spanned 17 years. His blend of size, power and sure-handed defense redefined the shortstop position and made him a perennial All-Star. Many fans glorify him as a symbol of nobility in a game that has been tarnished by labor stoppages and drug scandals.

Raised in Aberdeen, 45 minutes from the city, he played his entire career for the Orioles, at times beside his brother Bill and for his father, Cal Sr., as part of a legendary baseball family. He starred on the club's last World Series championship team in 1983, and when he retired in 2001, was celebrated as the last link to the franchise's glorious past.

For many, Cal Ripken Jr. is the Orioles.

"He's homegrown," said Mike Bell of Columbia in explaining why he drove his wife and 10-month-old son to see Ripken's induction. "I grew up in Baltimore, and this may be the last time I get to see a Marylander, who played his whole career with the team I love, go into the Hall of Fame."

As much as Bell and his wife, Amanda, admire current Orioles such as and , they fear they'll never see another Ripken orÀôÀ Jim Palmer or Brooks Robinson.

"Those guys are great, but are they going to be Cal Ripken?" Amanda Bell said. "I don't think we'll see another one like him in our lifetime."

"I'm old school," her husband added. "I like guys who spend their whole careers with one team. I appreciate that, for them, it's not all about the money."

Many Orioles fans feel that they've known Ripken forever.

"I grew up with him," said Steve Frederick of Upperco. "So, of course, I want to be here to celebrate. This might be our last chance to honor him this way."

Baltimore had a previous chance to stop and honor his achievements on Sept. 6, 1995, when a full house at Camden Yards stood, applauded and wept as Ripken did a full lap around the park after his 2,131st straight game became official.

Today, Hall officials are predicting a record attendance of more than 50,000 for Ripken's induction. Orioles fans already created one of the most memorable ceremonies with their outpouring of love for Brooks Robinson in 1983.

But this weekend's celebration is expected to dwarf that one. By Friday afternoon, fans had choked the streets of Cooperstown, clad in orange and ready to laud their Iron Man. A record 53 living Hall of Famers had also arrived to honor Ripken and former San Diego Padre Tony Gwynn.

Beyond his close relationship with the city and fans, Ripken's exploits on the field earned him an easy entry to the Hall. He ranks among a handful of players as the greatest ever at to play at shortstop.

Over 17 years of never sitting out a game, he became the most durable player in the sport's history.

Ripken joins 280 others, not just as another member of the Hall, but also as one of the most widely respected players ever to be enshrined (he received a near-record 98.5 percent of the vote in January).

"He was probably a Hall of Famer the first time he put on an Oriole uniform," said former manager Earl Weaver, the man who moved Ripken to shortstop as a rookie. "All it took was for time to pass."

Ripken said the Hall induction falls behind the Orioles' 1983 championship in his list of career highlights. He spent his career putting the team first and said he has enjoyed stepping back and appreciating what he achieved.