NEWARK, Del. - Cal Ripken Jr.'s themes were simple, his words plain. But the punch they packed had the stadium crowd standing and applauding about as much as any home run or record-breaking streak the Hall of Famer had delivered in his stellar baseball career.
"First, find a career that is your passion," the 6-foot-4 slugger and signature shortstop told the crowd of more than 24,000 at the University of Delaware's 159th annual commencement yesterday.
"Second, persevere to be the best you can be as you perform your tasks.
"And third, strive to be a good person in all that you do."
It was vintage Ripken, who is known for being one of baseball's all-time good guys as well as one of its most committed and durable players.
Even before his speech, which lasted just under 10 minutes, the crowd was cheering.
"We love you, Cal!" a voice shouted out from the more than 5,000 graduates sitting before him in caps and gowns.
"Thank you," he said, wearing a black robe and white hood, signifying the honorary doctorate in humanities just given him by the university.
Ripken, who holds the major-league record for consecutive games played and was the first major-leaguer to be voted rookie of the year and most valuable player in back-to-back seasons, acknowledged that his message might seem "corny."
"I might not be expressing thoughts you hear from many tycoons and celebrities who grab the public eye," the 47-year-old career-long Baltimore Oriole said. "Yet I truly believe that your life is ultimately measured not by how many consecutive games you play or how much wealth you achieve or how many times you grab the headlines, but rather by the quality of your character, which ultimately defines you as a person."
Students embraced the message, including Carol Anne Cipriani of Philadelphia, whom the university honored as its outstanding female senior for her 4.0 grade point average, leadership, and community service.
"It's just wonderful," said Cipriani, an elementary-education major. "One of the things I want to teach my students is perseverance."
Florida businessman Larry Mancini, who came to watch his son graduate, said he hadn't known what Ripken looked like before. But he said he wouldn't forget his words.
"He did a great job. It's not about money. It's about what kind of person you are," he said.
Lauren DeZinno, 20, of Olney, Md., grew up on the Orioles and named her goldfish after Ripken.
"My whole family is excited to see him," said DeZinno, who received her degree in English.
Ripken - who went directly into a baseball career and never attended college - was an unusual choice for a graduation speaker. In fact, he had turned down offers to give commencement speeches in the past, and this was his first. He agreed at the request of John Cochran, a university trustee who retired as chief operating officer of MBNA America Bank.
In his speech, Ripken cited the wisdom of his late father, who coached and managed the Orioles for part of the time Ripken played.
"It was my dad that reminded us that following your heart and doing what you want to do is far more important than chasing fame and fortune," he said.
He also raised the choice by some baseball players to use steroids.
"In the end, however, I suspect that almost everyone who made that decision now regrets it," he said, drawing applause. "At the end of the day, it's more important to weigh how you become successful than it is to be proclaimed successful."
Ripken, who retired from the Orioles in 2001 and now runs minor-league teams and youth baseball academies, said at a news conference later that he had been nervous but thought things had gone well. He was gratified by those who swarmed him as he came off the stage.
"I was invited to a few parties," he said with a smile.
Still, he said, he's not sure he would agree to give another commencement speech.
He spoke a little too fast, he said, reflecting: "I probably should have slowed down."
But, really, what can one expect from a man who played 2,632 consecutive games over 17 years, shattering Lou Gehrig's record and setting the bar much higher for those to come?