© 2007 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

07/29/07 12:42 AM ET

Alumni give new class warm welcome

Hall of Fame's veterans embrace entry of Ripken and Gwynn

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Sharon Manning had seen this before. It was close to midnight here in baseball dreamland, and the longtime Orioles fan from Severna Park, Md., was among those reaching out as Cal Ripken Jr. pulled a Cal Ripken Jr. and staged an impromptu marathon autograph signing session right outside the entrance to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The night before the biggest speech of his life, we might add.

Here's another moment that many Orioles fans never will forget.

"It reminds me of 2,131," said Manning, referring to the night Ripken took his 1995 victory lap around Camden Yards to touch as many fans as possible after breaking Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played. "He's a special guy. In Baltimore, we've been lucky. You know he's so busy right now, but he's taking time to do this. He's just fabulous, and he's always been one of the best signers.

"I understand that Tony (Gwynn) is that way, also."

Ripken and Gwynn were here along with dozens and dozens of returning Hall of Famers for the Red Carpet Parade, which carried the legends to the museum for a private reception on Saturday night. Thousands of fans lined Main Street behind barricades to watch them arrive, just as they did earlier this month for the third consecutive year to get players to the All-Star Game in style.

What no one could expect was the dramatic scene that unfolded considerably later, after the reception was just about over. One Hall official noted that "the whole state of Maryland is here," so it just made sense. As Ripken signed item after item -- ever so diligently -- on one side of the street, the fans on the other side began chanting, "Please, Cal! Please, Cal!" He accommodated them, and then they began chanting, "Thank You, Cal! Thank You, Cal!" It was not just for this night. It was forever.

"Pretty wild," Ripken said, as he stood there signing balls and bats and No. 8s and shirts and everything. Asked if it brought back memories, he said, "Oh, yes."

Inside the museum, on this night, it was like ghosts coming to life right in front of your eyes. Suddenly Saturday night, the Gallery inside the museum was not just a panoply of powerful plaques, but it was a room filled with dozens and dozens of the very immortals they represent.

This was the annual private reception for the returning Hall of Famers and their families and other VIPs. Gwynn and Ripken were greeted inside with ovations by their peers who will watch them be enshrined on Sunday afternoon. Tables and festive fare filled the Gallery like a true midsummer night's dream, as legends embraced legends and told stories of days gone by.

"They've been awesome," Gwynn said of the 53 returning Hall of Famers he has encountered this weekend. "Just how they reacted, one by one, to tell you, 'Hey, you did it the right way,' or whatever. That's when you know it's real. I still have to give a speech, so it hasn't completely sunk in yet, but this is special when you're actually in their presence and they're treating you like one of them.

"Until you walk away from the podium, you can't really understand what it's like to be one of those guys, though. I'm just a punch-and-judy guy. They've done a great job trying to convince me otherwise. There's some hitters in there."

As Gwynn was talking inside the museum entrance, the crowd was still roaring outside. The reason the Hall of Famers were here was the reception, but how they get here has become an annual happening on Main Street. Crowds formed early for the Red Carpet parade, which is similar to the one that Major League Baseball just held for the third consecutive year outside of the All-Star Game venue, transporting the greats of the game to the ballpark. In this case, the living legends rode trolley cars, and they disembarked to thunderous applause, treated like rock stars and walking up the red carpet and into the night. Amazingly, the crush of people behind barricades along Main Street seemed to be more densely packed than outside of AT&T Park for the Red Carpet Show carrying Barry Bonds et al to that July 10 Midsummer Classic.

"It's a little more enjoyable this year," said Bruce Sutter, last year's lone Hall inductee. "Last year, I was giving the speech on Sunday, which is not something I was used to doing. Believe it or not, I closed it out. Now, I can relax a little more."

As for next year's class, Sutter put in a word for his fellow relievers. "I certainly hope Goose [Gossage] gets in next year," he said, "and I'm pulling for my buddy Lee Smith, too." Sutter added that seeing his contemporaries "has been great, especially since I don't have to pitch to them anymore."

Before the Hall of Famers showed up, the crowd -- dominated by Orioles fans and featuring a healthy supply of country-crossing Padres fans. They were warmed up with trivia questions and prizes by an emcee, and they received periodic MLB scoring updates. The trivia questions weren't really hard. "What was Cal Ripken's number?" Plus, you had thousands of fans helping you with the answer.

They were all friends here. And they were all here to see their heroes. Had they been inside the Hall, they probably would not have believed the scene in the Gallery. It was as if the bronze images leaped right off of the plaques, in the form of modern man. All that was missing were Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb to sit down at a table and have a frosty beverage with the rest of the greats.

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Bob Feller. Willie Mays. Mike Schmidt. Yogi Berra. Tom Seaver. George Brett. Frank Robinson. Harmon Killebrew. And the list went on and on. You could just stand there behind the barricades and close your eyes and imagine them in uniform again, thrilling you in their glory. This was about as close as you can come today, seeing all of them pretty close up, giving them another big applause, just as they applauded each other and told the stories that make the game go on forever.

"It's just good to see these two players up in Cooperstown for this induction," former Cubs great Billy Williams said, referring to Gwynn and Ripken. "These were two good individual players. I was the Cubs' hitting coach, and I got to see a lot of Gwynn at the top of his game. I played in 1,117 straight games, and I wasn't thinking of Lou Gehrig's record. Writers told me that was a record that wasn't going to be broken, but Cal Ripken came along and did it. Now they're here, and it's good to see that."

It was good to see these special people from your past. A lot of fans along Main Street would tell you that. And now they have an induction ceremony to go watch.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.