Maese: With speech, Ripken fields tough chance

SportsProfessional BaseballBaseballFrank RobinsonCal Ripken, Jr.Bill MazeroskiJackie Robinson

It's not that Cal Ripken Jr. is at all ungrateful, but you've got to understand, over the past few months, virtually everyone he encounters goes through the same two-step greeting.

First, they want to congratulate him. Tell him he's the greatest, how well-deserved this Hall of Fame induction really is and how Baltimore and the Orioles and human existence as we know it just wouldn't be the same without him.

"When people say congratulations to you all the time or they kind of place you on a little higher pedestal than you think you deserve, it makes you feel a little uncomfortable," Ripken conceded yesterday.

And then comes the inevitable question, which is earnest and well-intentioned, but after hearing it for the millionth time, it sounds a bit like a mom repeatedly asking a son if he has finished his homework.

So, Cal, you done with that speech yet?

For all the hoopla and hype surrounding Hall of Fame weekend, what we're really talking about is a speech. The new inductee stands at a podium with the best men to ever wear a baseball glove assembled behind him and a crowd of TV cameras and fans in front. And from that microphone, whatever words he chooses will form a bridge to friends, family and fans alike, meant to reflect, to excite and to inspire.

"If I was looking at the stages since the announcement, there's a great deal of excitement when you get the news. ... Then there's a lot of congratulations that kind of embarrass you," Ripken said. "Now we're down to the homestretch, which is now an absolute terror."

What each inductee chooses to say will be remembered, will be replayed and in many ways will be immortalized. When it comes to Cooperstown, the stats might reflect the ballplayer, but the speech reflects the man.

So, Cal, you done with that speech yet?

The easiest answer: yes. And no. Ripken knows the message he wants to share but hasn't committed the precise words and order to memory.

"I've been thinking about it for a while, I've made notes, tried to structure it," he said. "But when you get down to it, you have to let it go at some point. You have to decide that this is the final version. It's not an easy task, trying to figure out how you thank all of the people who were instrumental in your career.

And if there's a message you want to give, how do you give it in a concise way? It's been fun to look at that and analyze, but you're right - I think I'm ready to not be asked about it anymore, and just deliver it."

Of course, that's tricky, too. Writing the speech is almost always easier than delivering it. When Ripken toured the Hall of Fame in May, he was given a quick primer on the speech rules, of which there is really only one - try to cap the speech at 15 minutes.

But no one's standing around with a stopwatch. That's why guys like Jim Bunning, Phil Rizzuto and Carlton Fisk each rambled on for more than 40 minutes.

Unless he takes us game by game through the streak, Ripken won't talk that long, but he'll still probably outspeak Bill Mazeroski. When Maz was inducted in 2001, he barely cleared his throat before the emotions unhinged him. Tears welling and his voice cracking, he couldn't regain his composure and apologized to everyone who came "all the way up here to hear this crap" before taking his seat.

So, Cal, you done with that speech yet?

And what's going to be in it?

Most induction speeches are heavy on appreciation, singling out family members, coaches and teammates. But many also follow a theme or touch on an issue that's heavier than a Hall of Fame plaque. In 1982, Frank Robinson talked about how arriving in Baltimore was a turning point in his life. He closed his speech thanking Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and the sacrifices made by the black players who opened the doors. "I know I couldn't put up with what he put up with," Frank Robinson said, looking toward Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow.

The following year, Brooks Robinson recounted his blessings, calling himself the luckiest man in the world. "I keep asking myself, 'How can any one man be so fortunate?'" he said. In 1990, Jim Palmer did what he does best - told stories - and focused on the amazing commitment required to achieve success.

In 1996, Earl Weaver pointed out how he fell in love with baseball, and in his long list of thank yous, he made certain to mention the major league managers. And in 2003, Eddie Murray began his speech by joking about his icy relationship with the media and closed by inviting everyone to chant his name.

Ripken Jr. has evolved into Ripken Inc., with business ventures that are on every corner of the map. Because he has carefully cultivated a safe and marketable image, don't expect him to wander into the deep waters as far as controversy, steroids or the state of the game might be concerned.

"I'll give you a little insight," he said of his speech. "It's a lot about the kids and it's a lot about what I'm doing after baseball and what baseball's afforded me to do. If there is a state of the game reference in there, it's to say that the game is pretty good through the perspective and eyes of the kids."

Still, the speech promises to crack open a tightly sealed window. When you're forced to reflect, to give thanks and to remember, the words, the tone and the emotions will humanize Ripken in a way we haven't seen in a while. No matter how much he practices in front of a mirror, he knows what's coming. "I'm hopeful I can get it out," he said. "But it's going to be hard."

"When I think of all the good things that have happened to me and the reasons they've happened to me - my dad comes to mind - that's happy and sad at the same time," he said. "So the emotional roller coaster and maybe being able to get through a very public event with some of your private thoughts is maybe what worries me."

So, Cal, you done with that speech yet?

In the sense that he has been writing it his entire life, yes. In the sense that he knows exactly how the message will come out, that will probably have to wait until next weekend - for us, but for Ripken, too.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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