Cooperstown, N.Y. -- A 2,632 game streak and a record-breaking work ethic can hardly be chalked up to destiny alone. Cal Ripken Jr. does recognize, though, how the path of the Susquehanna River mirrors his journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The longest river on the East Coast stretches from near Ripken's birthplace in Havre de Grace to Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y. His way to the Hall was a winding, emotional one, and when it concluded yesterday, even Ripken seemed shocked at just how many people had made the voyage with him.
And when Ripken took the podium to deliver his induction speech, we finally saw Baltimore's Iron Man melt. As he thanked his family, his voice wavered and tears welled up, hiding those soft blue eyes. Words got stuck in his throat, and at one point, he needed more than 15 seconds to compose himself.
While the induction was a fitting tribute for one of Baltimore's most beloved figures, the Cooperstown canonization felt different from other ceremonies. Many baseball players hang up their spikes and spend retirement playing golf and signing autographs. But as the baseball world gathered to honor Ripken's 21 memorable years in an Orioles uniform, it was easy to reflect on Ripken as a baseball player -- but much more difficult to reflect on what he'll ultimately mean to baseball.
Ripken is a worthy member of this elite club. His career, achievements and statistics are comparable to the best who ever put on a baseball glove. But there is a difference between him and many of the others, and it's the reason yesterday is difficult to put into proper perspective. Six years removed from his playing days, Ripken is still actively carving his legacy.
Yesterday afternoon, he stood alongside 54 other Hall of Famers -- including fellow 2007 inductee Tony Gwynn. These are all baseball legends whose respective legacies typically started with a rookie season and concluded years later when they finally stripped off their baseball uniforms. As a player, Ripken has The Streak and 3,000 hits and plenty of awards and honors. Those accomplishments might have punched his ticket into the Hall of Fame, but Ripken's mission is much bigger than that now, and he realizes that bigger contributions still lie ahead.
For all of the credit Cal Ripken Sr. receives for helping mold a ballplayer, Ripken said it was the birth of his two children that sprinkled some color on his father's words. "The secret of life is life," he said yesterday. Translation: The experts might judge a player's impact in numbers, but Ripken realizes his real influence is measured in people.
Which is why there are ball fields in Aberdeen. And why he attends clinics from coast to coast. And why 16 teams of 12-year-olds will converge on Maryland next month for the Cal Ripken World Series. And why, right now, a dozen coaches from China are here in the United States learning the game.
"Whether we like it or not, as big leaguers, we are role models," Ripken said. "The only question is, `Will we be positive or will we be negative?' Should we put players up on the pedestal and require them to take responsibility? No. But we should encourage them to use their influence positively."
Since leaving the game, that's exactly what Ripken has done. The same attributes that defined his career and so easily swayed Hall of Fame voters -- a tireless work ethic, loyalty, dependability -- have been cornerstones of Ripken's post-baseball empire. It's why no one is going out on a limb by suggesting that Ripken's lasting footprint -- his ultimate legacy -- will be a lot bigger because of his work around the game after his retirement.
"When I realized that I could use baseball to help make life better -- especially for the kids -- baseball became a platform," Ripken said. "By trying to set a good example, I could help influence young people in positive and productive ways."
One of baseball's beauties is the defined structure of the game -- the rules and the confines. Just as there is the mouth of a river and the outlet, there is a first inning and a ninth inning; there is Game No. 1 and Game No. 2,632. But because this is Ripken we're talking about, let's not get too caught up with beginnings and endings.
"I truly believe there are no endings," he said. "Just points at which we can begin again."
While the Hall of Fame induction was all about celebrating the past -- and a wonderful two-decade chunk of Baltimore's collective memory -- Ripken wakes up today with a sense of relief and a busy schedule ahead of him. After all, yesterday wasn't really the culmination of anything. It felt more like another new beginning.