COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Phil Niekro were on hand for the 75th birthday of the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Thursday, and no player may be more tied to baseball history than Ripken.
Ripken was linked to Yankees of two distinct eras: Lou Gehrig and Derek Jeter. Gehrig, because the Orioles infielder known as the Iron Man broke the Iron Horse's record consecutive-game playing streak of 2,130 in 1995, and ultimately established his own mark at 2,632.
Jeter followed Ripken as part of the trend toward bigger, more powerful shortstops. And now Jeter is in his final season, some 13 years after Ripken played his last game, and five years of eligibility from earning his own plaque in the Hall of Fame.
Ripken was inducted in the Class of 2007, pairing him with a left-handed hitter who won eight National League batting titles and, like Ripken, played for only one organization. In Tony Gwynn's case, it was the Padres. Ripken said he never took the possibility of election to the Hall for granted.
"I didn't think when I was playing that I would get into the Hall of Fame," Ripken said after the cake-slicing celebration in the plaque gallery. "If I did have such a thought, I'd immediately put it out of my mind. In order to play, you have to remain in the moment and do what you have to do. When your career is over, you dream a little bit.
"Everyone who plays the game, especially when you play 21 years like I did, you want to know that you helped make the game a little better, that you made a contribution. And this is the biggest affirmation of that. You have made a contribution to the game and now you're enshrined forever in the place that is the history of baseball."
Ripken took some time on Thursday to talk about the day, the Hall, Gehrig and Jeter.
MLB.com: What does the celebration of this birthday mean to you?
Ripken: It's hard to put it into words, and I think Phil Niekro got it right in his remarks. There is something magical about the place, coming here -- especially as a baseball person -- to be able to touch and feel and see the history. It's almost like it pulls you in. I was able to express how it feels to be a member of the Hall of Fame, but I'm still a fan in many ways. So when I come in here, I still feel like a fan. It's hard to believe it's been 75 years. It's a wonderful birthday to celebrate.
MLB.com: When you were inducted back in 2007, who were you most excited to meet and talk to?
Ripken: I don't know if I was excited to talk or to meet with any one person. I just enjoyed sitting in the room with members of the Hall of Fame and being able to share stories about different eras. I enjoyed listening to Bob Gibson a lot, and the terror some of the guys felt about facing him. That was really fun. But I can't say there was one particular person I was excited to meet. I wanted to meet them all.
MLB.com: Anyone from your Orioles lineage, your early years in the game?
Ripken: Well, Brooks Robinson was my all-time hero. That's always fun, and I got a chance to know Brooksie. There's the reference to family when you come up here. It's really a second family in many ways, and I certainly feel that way with Brooks. Carl Yastrzemski was pretty interesting to me. When I first came up, he was winding down his career. I've done a lot of interviews about Derek Jeter lately and him winding down a wonderful career. To me, watching Yaz play as a kid and then being able to play against him was something. When I tell people I played against Yaz, they say, "Hey, it doesn't sound right to me." But I did. So Yaz was a good one to connect his string of years with my string of years.
MLB.com: How important is this building to baseball?
Ripken: On so many levels, it's unbelievably important. It captures the history of baseball. It gives you a chance to be interactive with it, to feel it, to understand it, to almost go back in time. Baseball is a beautiful sport where we can compare other eras and we can go back in time. We seem to go back in time all the time. This is the place where you can physically do it.
MLB.com: Of course, there's the connection with Gehrig, and last year was poignant when he was honored and you read the inscription off his plaque. What was that like?
Ripken: That was magical. When I was going through the streak and we celebrated the record-breaking time of the streak, I always thought it was a little unfair to compare me to one of the best players to ever play the game. I got a chance to start to learn about Lou and who he was. I'd love to actually have a conversation with him and talk to him about some of the demands of playing every day and really what was important about playing every day. I think I already know the answer to that question, but it would be really great to be able to talk about it.
MLB.com: Do you think it's a lot different from era to era, what he had to deal with and you had to deal with?
Ripken: I'm sure it is. The sport has evolved, and it's evolved in a beautiful way. The sport has gotten bigger and better, the players faster and stronger. I think when all of us look back, we like to think it was better when we played. The fact of the matter is it continues to get better all the time. So the conditions you played under were that of its time. The scrutiny that big league players are under now -- everything is so instant -- are pretty tough, but we all meet the demands the best we can.
MLB.com: You mentioned Jeter and all the interviews you've been doing. What are your reflections about him?
Ripken: It's a wonderful end to an unbelievable career. Last year celebrating Mariano Rivera's exit, I thought, "You can't get any better than that." And now it might able to be better with Derek. Derek made his decision in the offseason. That surprised me a little bit, because I thought he'd test his physicality to see where he was. But he's done things so right all the way through his career. So this is going to be a wonderful chance for the fans to celebrate. My advice to Derek would be, "Open up, put down your guard a little bit, enjoy all the things one last time through the league and allow everybody else to enjoy you." It's been a special run and he's a special player. I think the differentiation for him, separating himself from other players, is that he's performed in the clutch at the most important times, at the highest pressure times, and he's got a lot of championships to show for it.
MLB.com: When you voluntarily ended the streak on Sept. 20, 1998, it just happened to be against the Yankees, and it just happened to be at Camden Yards. Jeter was one of the guys who stepped up and gave you a standing ovation. Why did you choose that particular game rather than just let it end quietly at the conclusion of that season?
Ripken: I made a decision early on that if we fell out of the race that I would stop the streak. It was a personal decision. I thought it was time. My thought was just to let it run out on the last day of the season, which was on the road at Boston. My wife said that it was probably better to do it at home. Everybody had been there all along and it should be a celebration of the accomplishment, not necessarily a normal end. It just so happens that the Yankees were the last game of the season at home.
And so, I didn't tell anybody until about 10 minutes before. I walked in to tell Ray Miller, and he took me out of the lineup. I didn't want the distraction before the game started. I would deal with it afterward and not have the team impacted by it. But the coolest part was that the Yankees were first to recognize it. When I didn't take the field, something didn't look right to them. And they looked into the dugout and kind of gave me a sign. I do remember specifically that Derek Jeter was one of the first guys to come up to the top step of the dugout and start to give me an ovation. Of all the things that happen in sports, very rarely does that sort of thing happen. So that made me feel real good. But I'll always have that memory of Derek coming up on the top step.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.