'It still feels a little like a fantasy'

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 Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis, 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.

"It endorses who you are as a player and what your contributions were," he said of entering the Hall. "And it doesn't take into consideration the team. Being elected to the Hall of Fame is about your career pretty much and your impact on the game."

Ripken said a big leaguer reaching the Hall is similar to a young player making the big leagues.

"Sometimes, you have to pinch yourself. Sometimes, you have to think, 'Am I really here? Or is this something that I'm thinking about or dreaming about?'"

As a longtime minor league manager and major league coach, Ripken's father was a key cog in the machine that taught the Oriole Way to hundreds of players at every level.

Ripken was in many ways the last link in a chain that began with Brooks Robinson and ran through the players who learned the game in the winning Orioles system between the early 1960s and mid-1980s. Ripken grew up around those stars and played his high school ball in Aberdeen.

When the 6-foot-4 Ripken moved to shortstop in 1982, slap-hitting, far-ranging Ozzie Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals defined the position.

Ripken was something entirely different. With his expert positioning, soft hands and great arm, he fielded just as many balls as the best little guys. But, on offense, he could pound balls into the seats and drive in runs at the same pace as the team's cleanup hitter, Eddie Murray.

The New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and others would eventually make this seem more commonplace, but the young Ripken was a shock to the senses.

"I thought he was just filling in there," fellow Hall of Fame shortstop Robin Yount said when asked his early impression of Ripken. "I thought he was just too big. But he ended up filling in for about 20 years."

Those who know Ripken well invariably talk about his analytical gifts and relentless preparation. He was such a model of these traits, even as a younger player, that George Will studied him to reveal the psychology of defense in his 1990 book, Men at Work.

"He used to really get under my skin," Hall of Famer Paul Molitor said. "I'd hit it up the middle, and he was there. I'd hit it in the hole, he was there. It got very frustrating, because he knew my tendencies and the pitcher's tendencies so well that he always seemed to know what to do every time I put the ball in play."

Ripken became a model of the great athlete as master craftsman - talented, surely, but as much a product of obsessive work and attention to detail.

"He made so many intelligent adjustments to stay at a high level for so many years," Hall of Fame outfielder Dave Winfield said. "So many guys come in and think they've got it all figured out, but then pretty quickly, they're extinct."

"He was one of those guys who didn't need a coach or a manager," Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton added. "He did everything the right way without being told."

Ripken was a natural athlete but lacked a classic swing. He was famous for showing up with a different stance every season as he sought the feel that might carry him to another productive run.

"Cal always thought he could figure it out," said Hall of Fame pitcher and former Oriole Jim Palmer. "There was this stubbornness about him, this sense that you've got to grind it out. I think, sometimes, people don't realize how hard you have to work to be as good as Cal was."

Ripken's streak of 2,632 consecutive games was a testament to that work ethic. Current players, accustomed to sitting out games for nagging injuries, still can't fathom that number.

"It's the most unbelievable thing I've seen in sports," said Orioles outfielder/designated hitter Jay Gibbons, who played one season with Ripken.

"You could depend on him," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "I guess that goes along with The Streak, but when I think about him, I just think about consistency."

Current All-Stars assume the tone of kids gawking at baseball cards when talking about Ripken.

"I've kind of always asked people about him," said Texas Rangers shortstop Michael Young, who was 25 and just finishing his first full season in the majors when Ripken retired in 2001.

"It's weird, even though it's my seventh year in the big leagues, I've always felt like Cal was at a different level. It's really odd. There's no league any higher than this one, but it doesn't seem like Cal is on the same level. And there are very few people that are like that."


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