Baseball scribes laud Ripken
Iron Man's legend left impression on more than fans
BALTIMORE -- Score one for the inevitable over the improbable.Cal Ripken Jr.'s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame was hardly a surprise to the public at large, and it's even less of a shock to those who spent their lives covering him. The Baltimore icon and former shortstop has been considered a shoo-in for more than a decade, and for some people, even longer than that. Those sentiments were justified Tuesday, when Ripken was voted into the Hall of Fame with the third-highest percentage (98.53) of all time, trailing only fellow immortals Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Ripken was named on a record 537 ballots, falling just eight short of becoming the first unanimous electee in the history of Hall voting. "I thought it would be very high. In fact, I thought he had a very good chance to be the highest ever," said Peter Schmuck, sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun. "Obviously, it was the highest number of votes, but that's because there are a lot more voters now. I wasn't surprised that it wasn't unanimous, because nobody's ever been unanimous." Schmuck, who has worked at the Sun since 1990, said that Ripken was the best player he ever covered. And to illustrate that point, he quickly ran through a laundry list of the former shortstop's various accomplishments. "This guy's the whole package. He's got the cumulative numbers, he's got Lou Gehrig's unbreakable record and he's got the squeaky-clean image. And to top it all off, he basically saved baseball in 1995," he said. "After the worst labor war in the history of baseball and after the cancellation of the World Series caused so much fan discontent and turned so many fans away from the game, he took it upon himself to welcome fans back one autograph at a time. "He stood out there for two hours every night after almost every game, wherever the team went. I can't overstate how important that was in refocusing the fans on what was good about baseball." Ken Rosenthal, who writes for FOXSports.com, spent more than 10 years covering Ripken in Baltimore before going on to national prominence. And he remembers his perspective when he first accepted the assignment. "I came to Baltimore in 1987 to cover the Orioles for the now-defunct Evening Sun," wrote Rosenthal in an e-mail response to a request for comment. "I don't think I knew for certain that Ripken was headed for Cooperstown at that time -- he was only in his fifth or sixth season -- but it already was obvious that he was a great player who had a chance to do some amazing things. "By that time, of course, he already had been a Rookie of the Year and MVP. After 1991, when he won his second MVP, it was pretty clear he was headed for the Hall of Fame. The streak was at an impressive level even back then."
Rosenthal endorsed Roberto Alomar as the best player he's ever covered, but he said Ripken was the most consistent defensive player he's ever seen. Furthermore, he said the icon's first-ballot election was completely appropriate."I do believe the first ballot should be for the very, very best -- but if I think a player is a Hall of Famer, I won't wait to vote for him," he said. "For example, I've voted for Andre Dawson from the moment he got on the ballot. Is he at the level of Ripken or [fellow inductee Tony] Gwynn? No. "He was a great representative for the game both in the way he played and the way he conducted himself." Jim Henneman, who worked the baseball beat for 15 years with the Baltimore News-American and the Baltimore Sun before becoming an official scorer, said that Ripken's appeal came from his attention to detail and his competitive drive. "There were better players. I think Eddie Murray was a better player," he said. "Frank Robinson was a better player, and I don't think there's a question about that. I think Cal would be the first guy to tell you that. Cal just did everything good. I might say he's the most complete player I covered. But to say he was the best, he probably wasn't." But there's still the matter of Ripken's icon status in Baltimore, where he served as the face of the franchise for two decades and still can be seen as a prominent pitchman. Schmuck compared Ripken to one of the player's boyhood idols -- Brooks Robinson, who was the ever-present Oriole long before No. 8 arrived on the scene. "It's a very, very similar situation, although Brooks doesn't quite have the same power numbers and doesn't have Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record," said Schmuck. "But this guy was Mr. Oriole, and then Cal was Mr. Oriole. "There are similarities and there are differences, but Baltimore should be amazingly grateful and proud that they've had two guys like this. Most cities have never had one." Perhaps nobody knows the power of Ripken's enduring legacy better than Rosenthal, the subject of an apocryphal story designed to scare sportswriters and their interns. Legend has it that after Rosenthal wrote an article Ripken didn't like, the shortstop intentionally launched a foul ball into the press box that destroyed his laptop. Tour guides in Camden Yards still tell the tale to this day, and Rosenthal can confirm at least part of it. "The story is true, but in the times I've heard it, it's been embellished. The tour guides make it sound like he was aiming for my laptop -- sorry, not even Cal is that good!" he said. "I had indeed written something that he didn't like shortly before that. I can't remember exactly what it was -- something about how the streak needed to end, most likely. I wrote columns about that a few times after he broke the record. "I was sitting where the Sun guys still sit now, and I had my head down when he hit the foul ball. The laptop, if I recall correctly, bounced off the wall of the second row, then hit the ground. I borrowed [a peer's] laptop and made deadline, leading with the smashed laptop. I remember writing jokingly, 'I was just between typing the words 'sit' and 'down.'"
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.