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Ripken on deck for Delaware commencement

Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. - the signature shortstop who played 95 straight games without making an error and was so durable and committed that he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played - finds these days "a bit nerve-racking."

Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. - the signature shortstop who played 95 straight games without making an error and was so durable and committed that he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played - finds these days "a bit nerve-racking."

So much so, he confesses he's not sleeping well.

This from a man who for years came through in the clutch in stadiums filled with tens of thousands of sometimes unforgiving fans.

All eyes will be trained on the Iron Man again tomorrow when he delivers a commencement speech at the University of Delaware, his first.

After years of turning down requests to speak at college graduations, the career-long Baltimore Oriole was persuaded by a friend on the university's board of trustees to step up to the plate.

Ripken, who went directly from high school to a baseball career, never attended college and wondered how he would address a stadium full of cap-and-gown-clad students off to careers nurtured on a college campus.

"There's a comfort that you want to first get before you start giving advice," Ripken, 47, said in an interview this week. "But being in business for the last seven years, I'm finding a lot of the advice you give in a sports sense really does apply in a real-life sense."

Ripken could tell the crowd how he overcame a rookie hitting slump in 1982.

Or how he coped with ribbing from teammates early on after he made the mistake of calling his father - then a coach for the Orioles - "Dad" during practice. He then started calling his father "Senior."

Or how he weathered the 1988 season, when his father was fired as manager after six games and the Orioles started 0-21.

Or how he had played 2,632 games straight over 17 years, still the major-league record.

He declined to reveal the content of his speech before "game day" but said his father, who died in 1999, would figure in it.

"I do bring tribute to Pops, just enough not to make me cry," said the 6-foot-4 slugger.

The speech will last about 10 minutes. He'll read it. And he'll have in mind his daughter, Rachel, a high school senior who will go off to the University of Colorado in the fall.

To prepare, he has been studying other commencement speeches, huddling with advisers, rifling drafts back and forth with his former agent Ronald Shapiro, and practicing, practicing, practicing.

"It's not dissimilar to the thousand swings you might take in a batting cage before the game starts for that four at-bats you get during the game," Ripken said.

"To be quite honest, it is a bit nerve-racking," he added. "I don't sleep really well when I have things on my mind like this. I'll practice it ad nauseam."

But at least he's not superstitious: He was married on Friday the 13th.

And he has given dozens of talks in other settings, including his emotional acceptance speech at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., last summer.

Still, could the quiet hero bobble in this new venue? The man who in 1982 and 1983 became the first major-leaguer to be named rookie of the year and most valuable player in back-to-back seasons?

Speech veterans say he'll do fine as long as he keeps his talk short and simple and gives a message to live by.

"Have a little anecdote if you can. Appeal to their idealism," advised Jack Bogle, 79, founder of the Vanguard Group.

Bogle gave his first commencement speech in 1997 at Widener University and since then has appeared at George Washington, Georgetown, Penn State, Drexel, Rochester, Susquehanna and Delaware.

It's good to recall a weakness or failure, he said.

"The crowd would rather hear about that than hear us revel in our success," said Bogle, who once advised Mike Richter before the former New York Rangers goalie gave a commencement speech.

The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, said speakers should make their talks relevant to the current generation.

"You have to understand their concerns," said Hesburgh, who has given 151 speeches at universities worldwide and collected as many honorary degrees. "You can't get up at a commencement speech and talk about the Boer War. You have to get at the pulse of humanity for the time you're speaking."

Ripken said that while preparing, he had leaned hardest on Shapiro, whom he described as his lifelong adviser and who helped with his Hall of Fame speech. Shapiro, author of Dare to Prepare: How to Win Before You Begin!, emphasized the need to prepare - a message that Ripken embraced throughout his career.

"To be the best you can be, you've got to out-prepare them," Shapiro said.

Officials at Delaware say Ripken's speech has brought increased news-media interest. It may even draw more relatives.

"I was walking behind a group of young women on campus, and one said, 'I don't know who this guy is, but my uncles and my dad are thrilled,' " said Patrick T. Harker, university president.

The university, he said, wanted a graduation speaker who illustrated the value of hard work and integrity.

John Cochran, a university trustee who retired as chief operating officer of MBNA America Bank, was asked to make the pitch to Ripken, who had been a spokesman for MBNA and became a friend.

"He's a man of very high character, sound principles, very family-focused, and he certainly gives back to his community," Cochran said.

Since retiring in 2001, Ripken has started a company that owns minor-league teams, runs baseball academies, and designs stadiums and sports complexes for youths.

University officials say Ripken's lack of a college degree was not a concern, given his life experience.

In fact, Ripken seems to possess what a spokesman at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities described as the important ingredients for a commencement speaker: Pop-culture relevance. Wit or insight to share. Ability to inspire.

Ripken wrote in his autobiography that he and his father believed the best way to succeed in professional baseball was to play it, not go the college route.

If not for baseball, he said, he probably would have gone to college to study architecture. An honor-roll student who liked math at Aberdeen High School in Maryland, he relishes working on the designs for the youth stadiums.

"It's a phase of life I wonder about. I miss in some ways not knowing what the experience was like," Ripken said of college. "But in many ways, as you go through life, you continue your learning."

So he won't pine for the undergraduate experience he never got.

Besides, after tomorrow, he'll have another college degree, albeit an honorary one, to add to his honorary doctorates from Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities.