'Overwhelming' salute

The ribbing began yesterday as soon as the bus carrying Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn rolled near the field where they would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

"Look at the people on those distant hills," the older Hall of Famers told the newest inductees. "Nobody's ever sat back here this far."

"We thought they were just messing with us," Ripken said.

But the elder stars were right. The estimated crowd of 75,000 that came to watch Ripken and Gwynn was by far the largest in Hall history.

"It was overwhelming," Ripken said. "When I looked out over that sea of people, I was intimidated by it."

They drove from Catonsville and Clarksville, Bel Air and Dundalk. Some flew from Florida, others from Nevada and Oregon. Most wore the orange gear of proud Orioles fans, but some just love Ripken and the way he makes them feel about baseball.

"This caliber of individual ... they don't make them anymore," said George Folio, a retired Baltimore firefighter who staked out a spot with a chair early Thursday morning so he, his son and his grandchildren would have a good view of the ceremony. They were as close to the stage as you could get without having VIP tickets.

"I named my son after Brooks Robinson," said Folio's son, Rick. "And if I had had another one, I'd have named him after Cal. I think his speech today will be a tribute to his journey, and as Orioles fans we feel we've been a part of that journey."

The numbers summarizing the weekend proved almost as staggering as Ripken's streak of 2,632 straight games played. The total attendance obliterated by 50 percent the mark of 50,000 set in 1999 for the induction of Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount. Fans began claiming space in the wee hours Thursday morning, and, by Saturday, thousands of chairs crammed the areas closest to the induction stage.

More than 200 buses rolled into Cooperstown yesterday. The Hall welcomed a record 14,000 visitors Saturday. Hotel rooms were booked all the way to Binghamton, N.Y., more than an hour away.

'They're all here'
The scene carried a definite Baltimore flavor, with fans waving signs that said, "2,632 Forever," belting out the "O!" as Gwynn's daughter sang the national anthem and producing a spine-tingling roar when Brooks Robinson was announced on stage.

"I don't think anybody's left in Baltimore," quipped master of ceremonies Gary Thorne. "They're all here."

"It's like the Preakness," said George Gurecki of Dundalk, "only a little more civilized."

Residents of quaint Cooperstown anticipated the onslaught and took it in stride.

"You have to remember that the population of Otsego County is only 62,000, and we have less than 2,000 here," village resident Lynne Mebust said. "So, yes, this is huge. But you just have to go with it and enjoy it."

Her children were among many selling souvenirs as fans poured down usually quiet side streets yesterday morning.

In explaining the mob, fans tended to talk not about Ripken's on-field exploits but about the broader traits he symbolized: perseverance, loyalty, passion and dependability.

"Cal was steady, he was even, he always appreciated the fans," said Greg Kachur of Bel Air. "He's just an old Oriole, a good, old solid ballplayer."

One fan waved an orange sign terming Ripken and Gwynn "The Classiest Class."

Tracey Folio said she hoped Ripken's speech would send a message to current players to "get their act together."

She was one of thousands who gave him an ovation when he said, "Whether we like it or not, as big leaguers, we are role models."

After the ceremony, Gwynn said he thought the size of the crowd demonstrated a yearning for more figures such as him and Ripken. Each stayed with one team over a career that spanned at least 20 years, and neither was tied to off-field trouble.

"I think the fans felt comfortable with us, because they could trust us," Gwynn said. "They could trust the way we played the game."

Ripken was more reluctant to analyze the crowd's motivations.

"I think it's about their love of baseball, this outpouring," he said. "It's easy to puff out your chest and say it's all about me, but it's not. To me, it was a symbol that the game is alive and popular and good."

Whatever the reason, fans began to pack the induction site before the sun rose over the foothills surrounding the town. Those who had not set up chairs earlier in the week and did not arrive at 6 a.m. were relegated to perches hundreds of yards from the podium.

"It's like we're in the old bleacher seats where Frank Robinson hit them in Memorial Stadium," Joe Bigalow said from a hill overlooking the induction site.

Bigalow drove from Newark, Del., with his wife, Lori. They had planned to make the trip since the day Ripken retired.

"He's just a class act," Lori Bigalow said.

"He has a working-class mentality," her husband added. "He never has his nose up in the air. He's one of us."

The Bigalows became fans in 1988, despite the 0-21 start to that season. Joe Bigalow can be seen hoisting a "Why Not?" sign in the official souvenir book commemorating Memorial Stadium.

Their neighbor on the hill, Pete Milenkowic, fulfilled a promise to his daughter, Marlena, by bringing her to Ripken's induction.

"I used to be a huge Orioles fan, and he was my favorite player," Marlena, 14, said.

"He was everybody's favorite player," her father said. "He was hard not to like, always signing autographs and all that."

Ready for an encore
Kevin Lowe of Ellicott City sat 300 yards from the stage, behind a tree. He said he didn't mind.

"I just hope he sees on the top of the hill and thinks, 'They're so far away they can't see me, but they're still here,'" Lowe said.

"I'd do this again next week if they held an encore," he added.

Many fans said they had been planning their trips since Ripken retired. Lisa DiSteafano of Kansas City, Mo., said she knew the trip was a basic condition of marrying her husband 15 years ago.

"It's been one of the givens in my life," she said, watching her young children play with a plastic ball at the edge of the crowd.

"I don't mind," DiSteafano said. "Cal is an example for all of us about perseverance, strength and the importance of doing your best every day. He's someone I can really talk to my kids about."

Scott Ray, an engineer from Portland, Ore., said his friends had little interest in flying across the country to see Ripken's induction, but he didn't want to miss it. Despite growing up in Spokane, Wash., he became an Orioles and Ripken fan.

"I grew up playing baseball, and I played shortstop," he said. "And [Ripken] was a great person to try and emulate."

As much as fans loved celebrating Ripken, many acknowledged tinges of regret because he's the last star from the franchise's glory years.

"I'm very saddened," said Kachur, the fan from Bel Air who has attended inductions for Murray, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, "because this is probably the last time in my life I'll be here to see an Oriole go into the Hall."


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