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Mr. Ripken goes to Cooperstown

He's in.

The announcement was so long expected that it came as no surprise, but yesterday, the word came that Cal Ripken Jr. was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. The kudos are coming in from all over, so why not from here, too? Congratulations, Cal. You deserve it.

In the headlines

Close to home, the Baltimore Sun has given its local boy made good the special-edition treatment in its newspaper and on its web site. The Washington Post has a story by Dave Sheinin, who covered the late years of Ripken's career. And of course, with the annual Hall election results being a major national event, there are articles all over the Internet on the topic, but I'll leave you (and your search engine of choice) to find the ones that suit you.

According to the voting results posted on the Hall's official site, Ripken was named on 537 of the 545 ballots cast by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). His total was five more than the 532 earned by the other enshrinee in this year's class, Tony Gwynn, and Ripken's vote percentage of 98.53% was the third highest in the history of the voting, narrowly trailing Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan's near-unanimous totals in 1992 and 1999, respectively. Ripken put up lots of impressive numbers in his playing career, and the Orioles' #8 is still putting them up even in retirement.


Something about those vote totals makes me wonder, though, about another eight — I mean, the eight writers who submitted ballots without voting for Ripken. What were their reasons for not voting for him? And if they voted for anyone else, then who deserved to be in more than him? When, if ever, were they going to vote for him? (No, I'm not trying to channel Hillel's questions; it just turned out that way.)

According to the Hall's news release, there were two blank ballots submitted this year. Apparently both were meant to draw attention to the so-called steroid era of the 1990s that has placed many players' accomplishments under a cloud of suspicion. One of the blank-ballot protesters was kind enough to reveal himself in his column: Paul Ladewski of the Daily Southtown in the Chicago area. In the face of uncertainty, Ladewski decided to do nothing. That is, not knowing who took performance-enhancing drugs and who didn't, he erred on the side of extreme caution by voting for no one, effectively making his the ballot to be named later:

But tell me, except for the players themselves, who can say what they put into their bodies over the years with any degree of certainty?

I mean, Hall of Fame hopeful Rafael Palmeiro swore under oath that he was innocent, right? The same Rafael Palmeiro who played with Ripken for five seasons, by the way. Palmeiro tested positive for steroid use during the 2005 season.

Now let's suppose a player is voted into the Hall of Fame, then a short time later, a former teammate steps forward to Canseco him. And another. What to do then? Keep him there? Take him out? Drape black crepe over his plaque?....

Better one year too late than one year too soon, I say.

I suppose that kind of logic is fine in ideal circumstances, but the world we live in often requires us to make decisions using imperfect information, and this is one of those cases. To date there has been no evidence that Ripken (or Gwynn, for that matter) did anything improper to enhance his playing ability — certainly no evidence that would challenge (let alone invalidate) his Hall-worthiness. That's not to say the next fifteen years (the maximum amount of time a player can remain on the ballot before he is dropped from BBWAA voting) won't turn up any new information. But apparently most writers saw enough in Ripken's twenty-plus years as a player to discount the possibility of discovering damning truths about him in the next fifteen years.

Ladewski has a point: Better safe than sorry. But ultimately, hewing to his logic would make the Hall voting job harder for the writers, and most of them just weren't willing to go to such lengths, at least not for Ripken and Gwynn. (They did show restraint, however, for Mark McGwire, whose suspected steroid use contributed to him earning just 23.5% of the vote in his first election.) To find the information Ladewski needs — i.e., to find out who did what substances and when — the writers would have to get their hands on the relevant federal grand jury testimony from the BALCO case. They'd have to wait for the results of George Mitchell's investigation (ongoing, and with no end in sight) to be published. If that proves insufficient, they had also better interview everyone who intimately knew each potential Hall of Famer: ex-teammates, coaches, agents, trainers, family members, doctors, personal chefs, pets, etc. And if the facts are still inconclusive after that — which is quite possible — maybe we can wait for someone to invent a time machine, so a messenger can go back in time to surreptitiously get urine samples from players such as Ripken and Gwynn while they were still active.

You see where this is going? Everyone has to draw the line somewhere, and most writers gave Ripken and Gwynn the benefit of the doubt. I don't blame them, yet neither do I condemn Ladewski's stance. Perhaps he felt he just didn't know Ripken or Gwynn well enough to completely rule them out of the witch hunt. Ladewski deserves credit for being bold enough to publicly explain his reasoning, which in my opinion adds to the uncomfortable but necessary discussion of baseball's drug controversy. Maybe Ladewski would penalize innocent candidates by making them wait longer to gain induction, but as long as the Ladewskis of the world don't bring the whole election process to a halt and prevent deserving candidates from ever being elected, I can accept their differences.

The one who speaks for the trees?

The other "blankface" voter remains unknown to my knowledge, but one of the other six who left Ripken hanging had his own reasons.

The following is from an Associated Press report:

Bill Shannon of Sports Press Service, who also does freelance writing for The Associated Press, omitted Ripken and Gwynn because he wanted to vote for 10 other players - the maximum allowed.

“I thought they were such obvious candidates they didn't need my vote,” he said. “I wasn't thinking in terms of a 100 percent.”

While that sounds reasonable, were ten other players' candidacies really so deserving that Shannon couldn't fit Ripken and Gwynn on his ballot? He sounds like someone in favor of a larger, more inclusive Hall, one that would contain, say, Dave Parker and Jack Morris and the dozens of others who had good but not outstanding careers. I am in the opposite camp, which prefers a small Hall with a high bar for quality, because if the bar is set too low, then the Cooperstown plaque loses its stature.

I also think Shannon violated the spirit of the rules by intentionally excluding two of the most qualified candidates from his ballot. However, there is nothing in the Rules for Election to the Hall of Fame that explicitly outlaws what Shannon did. The directions to BBWAA voters are general enough that they can be interpreted in any number of ways:

5. Voting — Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

That's it. There's nothing saying that a voter must select the candidates who he thinks best meet those qualifications, although I think it is implied. So Shannon did not clearly act in violation of the Hall's rules, mostly because the Hall's rules are unclear.

The main problem I have with Shannon's ballot is his assumption that Ripken and Gwynn already had enough votes to get in. But what if several others had acted as Shannon did and named a couple of less-qualified candidates while assuming everyone else would vote for the top guys? Fortunately, most didn't. As long as voters such as Shannon and Ladewski represent a tiny minority of the group, they can be tolerated because their tendencies do no significant harm to the process.

After accounting for Ladewski and Shannon, that still leaves six no-votes who remain unidentified, to my knowledge. Perhaps their names will come out eventually; most of the writers who did not vote for Seaver and Ryan named themselves in subsequent years.

Personal reflections

In the beginning was Cal, and the O's were with Cal, and Cal was the O's.

Okay, maybe not in so many words, but you get the picture. I started following the Orioles shortly after Ripken joined the club, so for many years the Orioles and Cal were inextricably linked in my mind. Here are a few of the personal memories I have of his career:

  • Ripken's famous competitiveness sometimes got the better of him. On September 25, 1987, Ripken was ejected from a game in the bottom of the first inning for arguing a strike call. Listening to the game on the radio, I was initially shocked that Ripken, who seemed such a level-headed man, had lost his temper so early in the game over a such a minor issue. The pitch that he contested wasn't even the third strike. Then I became concerned that Ripken's streak was over because he did not complete an at-bat in the game before he was ejected. Of course, since he had played shortstop in the top of the inning, the streak was still intact. Another ejection under similar circumstances occurred on August 7, 1989. (It did make me wonder where the line is crossed that makes a player's appearance count as a game played. What if it had been a road game and Ripken had been ejected in the top of the first inning before he was announced in the game as a batter? If he was merely listed on his team's lineup card, would that count as a game played in the record books? According to rule 10.21, yes: “When a player listed in the starting lineup for the visiting club is substituted for before he plays defensively, he shall not receive credit in the defensive statistics (fielding), unless he actually plays that position during a game. All such players, however, shall be credited with one game played (in ‘batting statistics’) as long as they are announced into the game or listed on the official lineup card.” Of course, this would have been a dubious way to continue his streak if it had occurred.)

  • Ripken was (and remains) a constant presence in advertisements for cars, food, and all sorts of other products, but his milk commercials were among the most memorable for their ubiquity if nothing else. My favorite was the one in which a boy Ripken (played by an actor) comes to the plate in a neighborhood game, and the opposing team's fielders, respecting his power, start racing back to the outfield fences while a woman warns people across the street to move their cars to prevent them from being hit. Sure enough, the little Ripken wallops the next pitch to kingdom come. The obvious message was that he was so big and strong because he always drank his milk. I admit that those ads probably led me to drink more milk than I would have otherwise during the '80s and early '90s. Keep in mind that I am mildly lactose intolerant and have never liked milk's slightly phlegmy texture. (Maybe if I had drunk more milk as a child, I would have made the major leagues. On second thought, probably not.)

  • In the summer of 2001, after Ripken had announced his retirement would take place after the season, the P.A. system at Camden Yards took to playing the introduction to Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" before Ripken's at-bats. (I'm not sure if he requested it or if the deejays selected it for him. I suspect the latter, because I didn't hear it in any of his final games.) Despite its humble-sounding title, the music is actually rather high and majestic in tone, and I once overheard one of the ushers call it "the God music."

  • It's no secret that Ripken is interested in owning part of the Orioles someday. Many Oriole fans have also wondered when Ripken will return to the team in a baseball-related role, whether as a coach, field manager, or general manager. Shortly after Cal retired, I was at an event where he and his wife, Kelly, answered questions about his post-playing career, and I remember Kelly stating adamantly that Cal would not go back to baseball full time until their kids had left home. So assuming he sticks to that pledge—and I see no indication that he won't, because he seems to value spending time with his children—the year to watch is 2011, when his son, Ryan, will turn eighteen and presumably graduate from high school. Cal will be 51 then.

Writing this reminds me that I never got around to completing my write-up about the greatest Oriole shortstops from a couple years ago. In honor of Ripken, I'm going to dig up my notes and finish that article in the next few days. Maybe I'll have sufficient momentum after that to tackle the other positions I left incomplete: outfield, DH, and pitcher. But as usual, no guarantees.

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