Schmuck: VIP reception allows greats to again hear fans' cheers

They rolled out the red rug last night at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, but for the fans who lined the barricades to cheer the sport's greatest heroes, it might as well have been a magic carpet.

The pending induction of likeable legends Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn has brought in a record number of Hall of Famers to take part in today's ceremony, and most of them attended last night's VIP reception in the Hall of Fame Gallery.

The atmosphere outside the annual event is, well, Oscar-like. Fans cheer each baseball great as he disembarks from a special trolley and walks the carpet into the main entrance of the museum.

It's a beautiful thing. The former players, some of them many years removed from the sound of a full stadium, get to feel the love all over again. The fans get a rare opportunity to see them up close and maybe exchange a word or two.

"It's just great to see all the names going up there," said Ariana Paribello from California, Md., straining to see over the huge crowd. "It's just exciting to be a part of this ... to be in their company for just a few minutes."

The first Hall of Famer off the first trolley was Bob Feller, the longest-tenured living member of the Hall (inducted in 1962). Willie Mays, who picked Hall of Fame weekend over his godson's assault on the all-time home run record, got a spirited ovation moments later.

The crowd cheered every player, but the excitement rose to a new level when Gwynn bounced up the steps toward the entrance and went off the charts when Cal arrived in a trolley that also dropped off Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver, George Brett, Dave Winfield and Dennis Eckersley.

"I'd just like to see this many people in Orioles shirts show up at the ballpark once in awhile," said Greg Mettee of Federal Hill.

Once inside, it becomes a personalized journey through time, because the Hall of Famers are right there by the displays that celebrate their greatest achievements. What a rare treat to hear them reminisce and fill in the blanks for the lucky guests who can only imagine what it must have been like to play such an important role in baseball history.

There was a particularly poignant scene at last year's reception, which preceded the induction of the final class of players from the Negro leagues. Family members of some of the 17 deceased stars and executives spent part of the evening in the Negro leagues section, relating stories from the days of baseball segregation for interested partygoers.

How often is a cocktail party also an education?

The year Murray was inducted (2003), a colleague attended the party and stopped to read the plaque of Cincinnati Reds star Tony Perez. Moments later, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

"What do you think?" Perez said. "Nice resemblance?"

Last night, Weaver found Boston Red Sox great Bobby Doerr sitting under his own bronze likeness, so he pulled out his reading glasses and read the plaque aloud while Doerr sat nearby nodding approval.

The no-autograph affair is invitation only, and invitations are scarce for anyone who isn't a Hall of Famer, the guest or family member of a Hall of Famer or a baseball big shot of some kind. The Hall also invites a handful of media members, but no interviews are allowed.

Baltimore was predictably well represented, and will be again today. Ten of the Hall of Famers who will be on stage for the induction ceremony -- including Cal - have a significant connection to the Orioles. Brooks and Frank Robinson. Eddie. Weaver and Jim Palmer. To a lesser degree, Luis Aparicio, George Kell, Robin Roberts and Reggie Jackson.

Charm City was just as well represented outside, where the multitudes gathered in orange and black to welcome them all.