Deep in the belly of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Cal Ripken Jr. donned the customary white gloves used to handle the treasured artifacts of bygone times and gently picked up the weather-beaten glove Lou Gehrig wore when he starred for Columbia University.
"There was no such thing as a backhand with that,'' Ripken marveled. In the blink of an eye, baseball's iron men were connected again on May 9 with Ripken's pre-induction visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown: Gehrig, the New York Yankees Hall of Famer who played in 2,130 straight games, and Ripken, the man who broke what once was considered an unsurpassable mark, playing in 2,632 straight for the Baltimore Orioles.
And in less than three months they will be connected forever when Ripken is inducted into the Hall of Fame.
"In some ways, I've been trying not to think about it,'' Ripken said. "I guess the process has begun. I can't put it off anymore.''
Ripken, who played his entire career with the Orioles, mainly as a shortstop, was elected in January along with former San Diego Padres slugger Tony Gwynn. Ripken was picked by 537 voters and appeared on 98.53 percent of ballots to finish with the third-highest percentage behind Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.
On this day, during the customary Hall of Fame tour given to each future inductee, it didn't take long for the emotions to strike.
Ripken held bats once wielded by Babe Ruth and Rabbit Maranville, gazed at the Honey Boy Evans Trophy given to Ty Cobb for winning the American League batting title in 1911, and saw Gehrig's jersey from 1939, his final season.
It felt good to at last be so close to the "Iron Horse.''
"When the comparisons to Lou Gehrig's unbreakable record kept being made, I think I pushed Lou away and didn't want to know about him, didn't want to change my approach,'' Ripken said. "Now in hindsight, you wish you had the chance to ask him what he was thinking, how he went through it.
"I'd love to be able to know the answer from him. Was it an extension of his approach? Did it happen by accident or did he actually set out to do that? Here, you're able to hold his glove, get a feeling of who he was, but you still don't get to ask the question. From what I've learned, it seemed as though it was a sense of responsibility. It was a sort of old-fashioned value, that that was your job, and that's what I hoped it would be.''
When Ripken entered the photo library, a table of images from his baseball life greeted him. Pictures of him, his dad, Cal Ripken Sr., and brother Billy were alongside original scorecards from four signature games of Ripken's career: the 2,131st game, the final game of the streak in 1998, the final game of his career and the 33-inning minor-league game between Rochester and Pawtucket.
The latter, which also featured Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, lasted 8 hours, 25 minutes, began on the night of April 18, 1981, went until nearly sunrise the next day, and was finally completed June 23.
Just the sight of that lineup brought back the memories from that frigid first night. "I think we scored in the top of the 21st and they scored in the bottom,'' said Ripken, who went 2-for-13 in that game. "I remember breaking pieces of the bench off to burn. Whatever they could burn, they burned to keep warm. It's amazing how some things you can remember.''
The most cherished memory is yet to come: induction day - and Ripken said he expects some tears to flow. Even though he doesn't want to think about it, the visit clearly stirred the emotions.
"Cal's a one-day-at-a-time type of guy, and so he's not one of those people who's going to project and keep thinking about July 29,'' said Ripken's wife, Kelly, who joined her husband for the tour. "But I think today, we're now officially here and walking through, it's starting to hit him, 'Wow! I'm really going to be one of these guys.' "
- By John Kekis
AP Sports Writer