Ripken uses speech to deliver message
'Iron Man' emphasizes teaching the sport to a new generation
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- The tens of thousands of people walking down the streets of this village or on the hills near the Clark Sports Center wearing black-and-orange gear bearing his name or old uniform No. 8 made it quite clear that Cal Ripken Jr. would have no problem winning election for any political position in his native Maryland, the license plate of which appeared to be on just about every other car in town.
Ripken, the former shortstop who became a baseball icon by playing in 2,632 consecutive games and putting up offensive and defensive statistics that earned him the most votes in the history of National Baseball Hall of Fame voting, sounded at times during his tight 16-minute induction speech as if he were running for office.
This is by no means a criticism. Ripken intended to deliver a message to the record crowd that made the pilgrimage here to honor him and Tony Gwynn, and the game's "Iron Man" did not disappoint. Ripken's message dealt with opportunity, responsibility, education, value systems and the need to communicate with youth.
"It took me a while to realize that baseball is one part of my life," Ripken said. "It was never more clear to me than when I had children. I realized that the secret of life is life, and a bigger picture came in focus. Games were and are important, but people and how we have impact on them are most important. We are the ambassadors for the future. Just as a baseball player wants to make his mark on the game and leave it a little better than he found it, we should all try to make this world a better place for the next generation."
Since his retirement as a player five years ago, Ripken has devoted much of his energy with his brother, Bill, to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation that gives under-privileged children the opportunity to attend baseball camps around the country. Teaching the sport to a new generation has expanded Ripken's perspective.
He began his talk by recalling a teaching session with one of those youngsters, a 10-year-old.
"I was teaching him hitting," Ripken said. "He was starting to have success and feeling quite proud of himself, and he asked me, 'So, did you play baseball?'
"I said, 'Yes, I played professionally.'
"He said, 'Oh, yeah, for what team?'
"I said, 'I played for the Baltimore Orioles for 21 years.'
"He said, 'What position?'
"I said, 'Mostly shortstop and a little third base at the end.'
"He began to walk away and looked back and said, 'Should I know you?' That certainly puts all of this in perspective."
The story was an example, however, of what Ripken considers the responsibility of marquee Major Leaguers to their young constituency.
"As years passed, it became clear to me that kids see all, not just some of your actions, but all," Ripken said. "Whether we like or not, we big leaguers are role models. The only question is, will it be positive or will it be negative? Should we put players up on pedestals and require that they take responsibility? No. But we should encourage them to use their influence positively to help build up and develop the young people who follow the game. Sports can play a big role in teaching values and principles. Just think. Teamwork, leadership, work ethic and trust are all part of the game, and they are also all factors in what we make of our lives."
Ripken credited his father and former teammates, notably fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, with helping him shape his view of how a professional should behave and now wants to convey that to those he instructs.
"As my career unfolded, I paid attention to my actions," Ripken said. "I remember when Kenny Singleton showed me a tape of me throwing my helmet down after a strikeout, and all he was said was, 'How does that look?' I remember learning about a family who saved money to come to Baltimore to see me play. I got thrown out in the first inning, and the little boy cried the whole game. I remember how I reacted with anger when Dad was fired after an 0-6 start [in 1988], and after each of these events I vowed to act better the next time."
Another theme Ripken touched on was his vision of life as a succession of beginnings instead of starts and finishes, which he acknowledged was ironic for someone whose career is tied to a streak that began in 1982 and ended in 1998.
"The streak is marked by a number, a start and an end, but I can assure you it was not accomplished with a view to a given number or end point, and I certainly wasn't aware when I started in this game where it would lead me," Ripken said. "I truly believe there are no endings, just points at where we begin again as players do 162 times a season and if they're lucky a few more times each fall.
"As I experience another new beginning with this induction, I can only hope that all of us, whether we have played on the field or been fans in the stands, can reflect on how fortunate we are and can see our lives as new beginnings that allow us to leave this world a bit better than when we came into it."
A master of composure, Ripken lost it when speaking of his father and children.
"Imagine how lucky I am to call the man whose memory I revere to this day by so many important names: teachers, coach, manager and especially, Dad," Ripken said of Cal Sr.
Then he broke down completely when addressing his daughter, Rachel, and son, Ryan, who "not only gave me a whole new understanding of life, but also continue to bring me pride."
Ryan helped his father deliver a love message to wife, Kelly. Cal held up a white rose, then tucked it into his suit jacket and said, "Ryan, I might need a little help transporting this," at which point Ryan reached into his own jacket and handed a white rose to his mother.
Ripken mentioned that he has accepted congratulations daily since Jan. 9, when he was elected to the Hall and wanted to do the same for all the fans that supported him throughout his career.
"Where would any of us in this game be without the people who love the game and their teams and who even make trips to events like this long after we've put down our gloves and bats?" Ripken said. "I know some fans look at the streak as a special accomplishment, and while I appreciate that, I always looked at it as just showing up for work every day.
"As I look out at this audience I see thousands of people who do the same -- teachers, police officers, mothers, fathers, businesspeople and many others. You all may not receive the accolades I have throughout my career, so I'd like to take the time out to salute all of you for showing up, working hard and making the world a better place. Thank you all."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.