Ripken elected to Hall of Fame
Iron Man to join Gwynn for Cooperstown induction on July 29
BALTIMORE -- In almost every city, he's known as the Iron Man. In Baltimore, he's part of the family.
Cal Ripken Jr., the most iconic player in Orioles history, was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame Tuesday by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Ripken, who was elected along with San Diego's Tony Gwynn, was named on a record 537 ballots and scored the third-highest percentage (98.53) in the history of the voting.
"There was a sense of anticipation for sure today. A sense of nervousness, and when I got the call there certainly was a sense of relief that you got it," said Ripken as part of a conference call. "Because although everybody around you says you are a shoo-in and that it's a no-brainer and it's a foregone conclusion, I don't really think that way.
"When I was sitting there waiting at the appropriate time -- waiting for the phone to ring -- there was a sense of anxiety. ... I certainly was very happy and euphoric when I got the call, but I was relieved at the same time."
Ripken is the sixth Oriole elected on the first ballot, joining Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver and Eddie Murray. The two-time Most Valuable Player and 19-time All-Star is best known for playing in 2,632 consecutive games, which shattered Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record of 2,130 games.
"For 21 seasons and 3,001 games -- 2,632 consecutively -- Cal gave his heart and soul to this franchise, this city, and to the game of baseball," Orioles chairman and CEO Peter Angelos said in a prepared statement. "Throughout his career he played the game with integrity, determination and class.
"His records and statistics are impressive. He played the game at a consistently high level for more than two decades. But Cal Ripken is more than just records and statistics. He is the Iron Man who was born in Maryland, played his entire career for his hometown team, and gave everything he had day in and day out, year after year."
In an era of transient athletes, Ripken followed in his father and namesake's footsteps by spending more than two decades in service of his hometown team. Cal Ripken Sr. spent 36 years in Baltimore's organization as a player, coach, scout and manager. He raised a starting double-play combo -- shortstop Cal Jr. and second baseman Billy -- and instilled the famous sense of hard work and professionalism that both embodied.
"My particular career seems very storybook," Ripken said. "Growing up around this area, watching the Orioles and having your dad work in the Orioles organization, [you] secretly hope that you'll be able to follow in his footsteps, so to speak. To have it all happen and stay there for your whole career was a little challenging at times.
"Sometimes, you have to be aware of your contract situation and sign early. I went through many rebuilding processes -- you have to be willing to do all those things. But it was very important for me to play for the team I wanted, and I always felt it was such an honor to do so."
Ripken Jr. took his father's lessons and turned them into an astonishing career. He hurdled Gehrig's record, which stood for 56 years, and set a new one by more than three complete seasons. When it finally happened in 1995, the celebration of the game helped revive baseball's fortunes after a damaging work stoppage.
But Ripken's career meant much more than The Streak. He's one of the few players in baseball history who revolutionized the game. Ripken turned shortstop from a defensive position into an offensive one, ushering out the Mark Belanger era in Baltimore and anticipating players such as current O's shortstop Miguel Tejada.
"To me, he's a slam dunk even without the streak," said Ken Rosenthal, who covered Ripken with The Baltimore Sun for more than a decade and now works for FOXSports.com. "He proved that a tall man could play shortstop, enabling players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to follow.
"That alone is a monumental contribution, and it doesn't even factor in his substantial offensive achievements -- or the fact that he played a huge role in helping baseball recover from the strike of 1994 and '95."
Ripken, a native of Aberdeen, Md., came from humble beginnings. He was chosen as a second-round pick out of high school in 1978 and quickly ripped through the organization. He made his big-league debut in 1981 -- another strike year, ironically -- and ultimately wrested the shortstop job from Belanger, an eight-time Gold Glover.
Weaver was behind Ripken's placement at shortstop, but it didn't become a full-time assignment until 1983. Ripken split time between short and third base in '81 and '82, but he started to achieve prominence right away. His streak started in May of '82, and he hit 28 home runs that year en route to the American League's Rookie of the Year Award.
"I'm very proud that I may have played a small role in that. I'm smart enough to know that I didn't change the game by myself," Ripken said of playing shortstop. "By moving over there when Earl pushed me there, there were some questions about my size and my ability to play the position. By having the success that I had, it may have started to change the mindset -- at least in terms of consideration of players.
"I hear Derek and Alex and some of the other guys give me credit for paving the way, but I think if it [hadn't] been me, it would've been somebody else that had success there."
Ripken took an even bigger step forward in 1983, when he earned the first of his 19 All-Star berths and slugged his way to his first Most Valuable Player Award. He hit .317 with 27 home runs and 102 RBIs, leading the Orioles to an American League East title. Baltimore went on to win the World Series, further seeding his legacy.
The train to Cooperstown kept rolling in the next few years, as Ripken continued to play everyday and post gaudy statistics. He would go on to hit at least 20 home runs for an additional eight straight seasons, which was unheard of at the time for a shortstop. His father watched it all develop from a nearby perch as a coach and manager with the Orioles.
"Certainly, this is one of those moments where you reflect back on your whole life. You're thinking about who was instrumental in helping you have the type of career you had," Ripken said in response to a question about his father, who passed away in 1999. "I was listening to my brother Billy, who was a guest on a [radio program] this morning. ...The question was asked to him, 'Do you think of your dad at these moments?'
"I was in the car coming back from carpool, and he made me well up. I started to cry, because he took me down the same path I've been down a few times. Even though dad's not with us, he certainly is celebrating in the moment in many ways in our family."
Cal Sr.'s pride swelled exponentially in 1987, when he became Baltimore's manager and Billy made his Major League debut. The O's struggled to a 67-95 record, but Ripken became the first manager to write two of his sons into the lineup card. He was fired after an 0-6 start in 1988, but his sons continued his legacy for several seasons.
Baltimore went on to establish a Major League record with 21 straight losses to start the '88 season, and the premature dismissal of Cal Sr. caused the only fissure in Ripken's relationship with the team. His dad stayed in the organization, though, and returned to his familiar spot in the third-base coaching box for the next few years.
Ripken, meanwhile, continued his assault on the record books. He narrowly missed out on a Gold Glove in 1990 -- when he made just three errors in 162 games -- and had his best season in 1991. He finally won the fielding hardware that season and batted .323 with career highs in home runs (34) and RBIs (114).
He won his second Most Valuable Player Award that season, adding yet another career highlight. But his career truly became complete on Sept. 6, 1995, when he passed Gehrig. Ripken displayed his usual knack for auspicious timing by hitting a home run in the fourth inning, moments before the game and the record became official.
In the middle of the fifth inning, Ripken bathed in a 21-minute standing ovation. The reticent superstar had to be convinced by his teammates to take a victory lap around the stadium, shaking hands and creating a highlight reel moment that's been played repeatedly over the years since then.
"It was very spontaneous. I was feeling a sense of anxiety that it was unfair to stop the game in the middle of the game. You felt for the pitchers -- it's almost like a rain delay," he said. "I just kept saying to myself, 'OK, let's get the game started. Thank you very much. I'll celebrate it as much as you want after it's over, but let's stay with the game.'
"Bobby Bonilla and Rafael Palmeiro pushed me out of the dugout and said, 'Hey, if you don't do a lap around this thing, we'll never get the game started.' I thought it was a ridiculous sort of thing, ...but as I started to do it, the celebration of 50,000 started to be very one-on-one and very personal. I started seeing people I knew. ...Those were the people that had been around the ballpark all those years, and it was really a wonderful human experience."
The streak continued unabated for three more seasons, but Ripken elected to end it on Sept. 20, 1998. He received another standing ovation that day -- both from the crowd and his opponents, the Yankees. The next career highlight came in 2000, when he joined the exclusive 3,000-hit club.
Ripken was clearly winding down, though, and he announced his impending retirement in June 2001. He won Most Valuable Player honors in a memorable All-Star Game and had his number retired by the Orioles before the final game of the season.
That wasn't the end of his story, though. Ripken went on build a new stadium in his hometown of Aberdeen and ultimately became a part-owner of the Baltimore affiliate that plays there. He also began a foundation named after his father that makes contributions to youth baseball and established his own branch of the Babe Ruth League.
All of those steps led to the present moment, when Ripken was confirmed as one of the all-time greats and legends of the game. That status has been assured for quite some time, but it became etched in granite on Tuesday.
"The waiting period is five years to have an opportunity to get this phone call. This five years has been the fastest five years of my life, in many respects," Ripken said. "I've had a chance to branch off and do other things -- own a couple Minor League teams, build some kids' complexes -- and dive into other areas.
"I've had an opportunity to have a second career of sorts. I've been really busy in a good way, and I feel like we're making strides on celebrating baseball at the grass roots ... and having a whale of a time doing it."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.