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12/28/06 9:00 AM ET

Ripken's career more than numbers

Shortstop who captivated fans with work ethic a lock for Hall

In the first month of his Rookie of the Year Award season with the Yankees in 1996, Derek Jeter visited Baltimore's Camden Yards for the first time. Five hours before game time, Jeter stood in the visitors' dugout, still wearing civilian clothes and watching several Orioles players participate in an early batting-practice session.

One of those players was Cal Ripken Jr., who, after taking about three dozen BP swings, went out to his shortstop position and began fielding ground ball after ground ball either off a hitter's swing or a coach's fungo.

Jeter turned to another person in the dugout and said, "So that's how you get to be Cal Ripken."

The remark was spoken in admiration. Jeter had heard Ripken was on the field and wanted an up-close look at the player he had long admired. He was gratified to discover first-hand that the man who broke Lou Gehrig's 56-year-old record for consecutive games seven months earlier was the real deal. Ripken showed the rookie Jeter his version of the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

What Carnegie Hall is to entertainers, the National Baseball Hall of Fame is to ballplayers, and a career dedicated to an extraordinary work ethic is likely to be honored next month. There is scant doubt that Cal Ripken, Jr. will be elected to the Hall by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. The only question is by how high a percentage.

Induction into the museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., requires a 75-percent plurality -- which is hard enough to achieve -- but Ripken could find himself in that rarified air of 98 percent previously accomplished by Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Ty Cobb and George Brett. There is even talk about Ripken possibly being the first unanimous choice, which is less likely but helps fuel debate.

Even without "The Streak," which stretched to 2,632 games, a defining circumstance of his career, Ripken would have been bound for Cooperstown. The numbers are there. All the various awards are there. A World Series ring is there. In the one dubious record he holds -- most times grounding into double plays -- the mark he broke belonged to Henry Aaron. So even in a negative connotation Ripken rubs elbows with the game's greats.

At 6-foot-4, Ripken was viewed by some as being too tall for a shortstop, but Orioles manager Earl Weaver resisted suggestions that Ripken play third base, which he eventually did but not before redefining the offensive role of the middle infielder. Jeter is among the generation of shortstops who followed Ripken's path in being productive with the bat as well as the glove without being hindered by a basketball player's frame.

"I was already in the league," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, then manager of the White Sox, said, "and I thought, 'Wow, look at the size of that guy.' But he made all the plays. Here's a guy that played exceptional defense and now you had all that extra offense. A lot of shortstops now are very offensive-minded at the same time as they play very good defense. Before Cal, the shortstop just caught the ball and didn't really worry about what he did offensively."

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez became a star initially as a shortstop and was strongly inspired by Ripken. In the 2001 All-Star Game at Seattle's Safeco Field, Ripken's last All-Star appearance, A-Rod shifted from his shortstop position to third so that Ripken could get an inning at his old spot. Naturally, Ripken homered in that game and was the Most Valuable Player, another example of his glowing in the spotlight, which was a characteristic of his career.

"You couldn't be a shortstop and not be influenced by Cal in some way," Rodriguez said. "It's impossible. He was that big. He was a pioneer in many ways. The most underrated thing about him was his defense. The year [1990] he went out and made three errors and led the league in double plays was awesome. He'll be remembered more for his home runs, RBI and games played, but his defense was something."

Ripken had the bloodlines. His father, Cal Sr., who passed away in 1999, labored a lifetime in the Orioles organization as a Minor League player, coach and manager and Major League coach and manager. Cal Jr.'s brother, Bill, was a big-league teammate and remains a business partner in various endeavors, including the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation to give underprivileged children the opportunity to attend baseball camps around the country.

Cal remains entrenched in the game as part owner of the Orioles' Class A/New York Penn League affiliate in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md., where he lives with his wife, Kelly, daughter, Rachel, and son, Ryan. Just across from Ripken Stadium, the IronBirds' 6,000-seat facility, is the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy featuring several fields modeled after famous parks such as Chicago's Wrigley Field, Boston's Fenway Park as well as Camden Yards and Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium. Championship tournament games of the Cal Ripken Division (11-12 year olds) of Babe Ruth League, Inc., are played there every year.

Using a variety of batting stances, which he seemed to change several dozen times each year, Cal Ripken Jr. spent all of his 21 Major League seasons with Baltimore. He was a 19-time All-Star, played in a record 16 All-Star Games in a row and was twice the Midsummer Classic's MVP. Ripken is the all-time All-Star ballot leader, with more than 36 million votes.

"Cal [Ripken] was a bridge, maybe the last bridge, back to the way the game was played."
-- Yankees manager Joe Torre

The American League Rookie of the Year Award winner in 1982 and the league's MVP the following year when Baltimore won its last World Series, Ripken earned a second MVP Award in 1991, by which time he was well on his way to posting career numbers such as 3,184 hits (14th), 603 doubles (13th), 431 home runs (35th), 1,695 RBIs (20th), 3,001 games (8th), 11,551 at-bats (4th) and 127 sacrifice flies (2nd). He won two Gold Glove Awards, eight Silver Slugger Awards and batted .338 in 28 postseason games.

As if that were not enough, there was The Streak, which rightfully belongs in capital letters, an astonishing accomplishment that set Ripken apart for his simple approach that he should be ready to play every day. It was the streak that earned Ripken the lasting respect from the people in the stands, men and women who were expected to be on the job every day in their own professions.

But in the Major Leagues, that includes weekends and holidays amid a breakneck, 162-game schedule. Day in and day out over 17 seasons, Ripken was on the lineup card and on the playing field. As he neared Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games, which was once considered unbreakable, Ripken helped heal the wounds of a players' strike that truncated nearly one-third of the 1994 season, forced the cancellation of that year's World Series and reduced by three weeks the start of the 1995 season.

Ripken's streak renewed fan interest, and most can recall where they were the night of Sept. 6, 1995, when Ripken played in his 2,131st straight game and became his sport's new "Iron Man." He and Bobby Bonilla hit back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning to give the Orioles the lead at Camden Yards, so when the Angels went out without scoring in the fifth it was an official game. Play was halted for 22 minutes as Ripken lapped around the stands high-fiving many in the crowd of 46,272.

"I know that if Lou Gehrig is looking down on tonight's activities, he isn't concerned about someone playing one more consecutive game than he did," Ripken said that night. "Instead, he's viewing tonight as just another example of what is good and right about the great American game."

"It is extremely impressive that Cal was able to do something like this while playing shortstop," Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith said at the time. "You have to have size and strength, which he obviously has, you have to have skill and you have to have some luck. I have always thought that shortstops were the best athletes on the field, and this just reconfirms that."

The streak continued into 1998, the year after Ripken moved to third base permanently because the Orioles acquired Mike Bordick as a free agent to play shortstop regularly. The streak's end came Sept. 20, the date of the Orioles' last home game of the '98 season, and it was easy to detect. Ripken was nowhere to be seen on the field while the Orioles took BP before that game.

Joe Torre, manager of the visiting Yankees, came on the field sensing something was amiss. When he received the Orioles' official lineup that day, Ryan Minor was listed at third base and not Ripken, who had decided the streak had gone on long enough. The Yankees paid homage to Ripken by standing on the top step of the dugout and applauding him as the game began.

"Cal was a bridge, maybe the last bridge, back to the way the game was played," Torre said. "Hitting home runs and all that other good stuff is not enough. It's how you handle yourself in all the good times and bad times that matter. That's what Cal showed us. Being a star is not enough. He showed us how to be more."

Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, himself not one to be missing from lineups, used to say, "I thought it was important that the manager knew he could count on me every day." Ripken has called Murray his favorite teammate. They will soon be reunited in Cooperstown on a day that could prove to be magical, as one of the largest crowds for a Hall of Fame induction ceremony is anticipated.

Polly Renckens, president of the Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce, told MLB.com, "We started getting calls about the 2007 induction the day Cal Ripken announced that he was retiring after the 2001 season."

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.