Baltimore Orioles trainer Richie Bancells checks over catcher Ramon Hernandez during a game in Seattle last month. Bancells was Cal Ripken’s trainer
Baltimore Orioles trainer Richie Bancells checks over catcher Ramon Hernandez during a game in Seattle last month. Bancells was Cal Ripken's trainer for much of his career. The two became special friends. Bancells and his family received a personal invitation from Ripken to attend Sunday's Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown. (File photo)
The friendship took root in 1978 in Bluefield, W.Va.

It started to bloom in 1984 in Baltimore, Md.

And it will reach full flower on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.

That's when Cal Ripken Jr. will share the pinnacle of his remarkable baseball life with a man who has been beside him nearly every step of the way.

He eased Ripken's aches, tended to Ripken's ills and hardened Ripken's muscles. In many ways, he's the man behind the Iron Man.

He is Richie Bancells, and, unless you're a true Baltimore Orioles diehard, his name likely means little to you. But to Ripken, Bancells is not just the Orioles' trainer, he's also a very special friend.

The relationship began in Bluefield, when Ripken was a first-year pro and Bancells was a first-year trainer at a minor-league outpost in the hills of West Virginia.

The two crossed paths occasionally on the way to the majors. Ripken got to the big leagues for good in 1982,
when he was named the American League Rookie of the Year. In May of that year, Ripken began the most mind-boggling streak in baseball history. It would end more than 16 years later, in September of 1998, when he finally sat out after playing in 2,632 consecutive games. In 1983, Ripken won the first of his two AL MVP awards, helping the Birds win the World Series.

Bancells would join the O's as an assistant trainer in 1984. Four years later, he was named head trainer -- a position he's held to this day. Over the years, as the "streak" took on a life of its own, Ripken and Bancells became more than just player and trainer -- much more. And so did their families.

Sunday, Ripken will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And Bancells will be there, too. In fact, the entire Bancells family will attend -- as Ripken's invited guests.

"It was really exciting that he didn't just invite me or my wife, but my entire family," Bancells said. "But that's him -- totally him. I guarantee you he sat down and thought about it."

At first, Bancells didn't even think about attending Ripken's Hall of Fame ceremony. He had already asked for a day off this season to attend his daughter's graduation, and he didn't want to ask the club for another day off. But then he got Ripken's special invitation.

"I thought, 'I guess if he's inviting me, I should think about it,'" Bancells said. "I asked the club and they said 'absolutely, I should go, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing, especially considering the relationship Cal and I have together.' I was taken aback."

As a result, Bancells will miss the O's home games Saturday and Sunday against the New York Yankees to make the journey from his home in nearby Parkton, Md. (just south of York County) to Cooperstown.

Despite Ripken's obvious respect for the job he did as his trainer, Bancells downplayed his role in the "streak."

"I just did my part," said Bancells, who often works out at the Southern York County YMCA. "Whenever he had injuries, we treated it. The difference with him, what gave me more pride than anything, is that when he had injuries and he came to me, he did whatever I asked, which showed he had confidence in what I had to say."

While Bancells is reluctant to take much credit for helping to make the Iron Man, he practically gushes when talking about Ripken, the man.

"What you see is what you get," Bancells said. "It's hard for people to understand, in this day and age of superstars, that he really is the genuine article. He loves people and he loves kids. And for that reason, I know that I will never have another one like him as a person of character and integrity and a leader on the team, all wrapped into one. That seemed to come second nature to him."

Bancells is also impressed that Ripken, despite all his honors and accolades over the decades, remains almost identical to the teenager he met in West Virginia in 1978.

"It sounds kind of corny, but he never really changed as a player or as a person," Bancells said. "He's the same fun-loving, hard-working kind of guy. If anything changed, they were improvements on the way he went about his work. Yeah, sure I'm proud to say that I had him as a player, but I'm more proud to have him as a friend."

Sunday, his "friend" will join the baseball immortals. And Bancells will be right there with him -- just like he's been for nearly three decades.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheise r@yorkdispatch.com or at 854-1575, ext. 455. You can read Steve Heiser's blog, "Chip Shots and Parting Shots," at yorkdispatch.com/ blogzone.