There are retired numbers. And then there are the numbers that, while technically available, aren’t for just anyone.

Before Wednesday night, no Oriole had worn No. 7 since Cal Ripken Sr., who was with the organization for 36 years as a player in the farm system and a coach and manager in the minors and majors. Though his son is the more famous, more accomplished Cal Ripken, it was Senior who taught the famed “Oriole Way” to generations of players and was revered by the organization.

But Fred Tyler, the longtime clubhouse manager whose own family is deeply rooted with the Orioles, felt compelled to call Junior on Wednesday to ask: Would it be OK if Jackson Holliday, the team’s latest top prospect, wore No. 7?

Ripken called his brother Billy just to make sure, but he didn’t hesitate.

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“I would say, ‘It’d be really great. I’d be really happy for him,’” Ripken recounted in an interview with The Banner. “He’s an awesome talent. There’s high expectations for him, and I think he’s going to be a really great player for a long time. He’s a really good kid, comes from a good family, and I thought it was a really easy, wonderful decision.”

Jackson Holliday, wearing No. 7, strikes out during the third inning of his MLB debut against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Wednesday. (Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)

Ripken Jr. is 63, the same age as his father was in 1999 when he died of lung cancer. On Thursday morning, Ripken unveiled a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) center at Lansdowne Middle School — the 500th opened by the foundation he runs in his father’s name — to a crowd of children born well after his career ended.

As he described his excitement at catching the last out of the 1983 World Series to the audience of middle schoolers, it was a reminder that his playing days are further in the rearview. There’s also a growing distance from the folks who remember his dad as one of the essential figures of the Orioles organization.

In Ripken’s eyes, one of Baltimore’s most exciting young players taking on No. 7 is a chance to breathe new life into his father’s legacy, a pursuit that he’s still passionate about. He didn’t know until Tyler told him that it had been unofficially retired, but Holliday is the kind of player who reignites the number’s connection to the past.

“This gives an opportunity to actually speak to the great things going on with the Orioles, and we’re looked upon as a great organization now,” Ripken told The Banner. “And it’s really what my dad worked to achieve in the minor leagues for 14 years. It just seems like it’s all come around in a really good way, and I like that people are talking about Dad right now.”

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It did not hurt that Holliday’s own attachment to the number is rooted with his father. Matt Holliday wore No. 7 when he played for the St. Louis Cardinals, enjoying some of his best team success along with All-Star seasons.

Watching Jackson Holliday’s debut took Ripken back. He also played his first major league game at 20, though as a pinch runner, not a starter. Holliday went 0-for-4 on Wednesday night against the Red Sox but batted in a run. It took Ripken until his fifth appearance to get his first big league hit (he would log 3,184 in his 21-year career).

When Ripken sent a chopper down the middle of the infield against the Kansas City Royals in his first MLB at-bat, he thought he wouldn’t have to wait at all. Instead of running through first base (as his dad taught him), he watched the play unfold. Second baseman Frank White materialized in the gap and threw him out.

“I was kicking myself, wondering if that hesitation, watching the play, was the difference,” Ripken said, laughing. “The thing I liked about Jackson is that he looked aggressive, and he stayed aggressive throughout the game.”

Ripken is as busy as ever since he retired in 2001. He is a part of David Rubenstein’s group that acquired a controlling stake in the Orioles just before opening day. His foundation is opening STEM centers throughout the country, announcing 81 more to come in partnership with BGE operator Exelon (President and CEO Calvin Butler sits on the foundation board).

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Ownership, naturally, brings him to the ballpark more. Although Ripken acknowledged being drawn into the ownership suite now and then, he enjoys games the most watching from his seats behind home plate that he’s had since the Orioles played at Memorial Stadium. He checks the box scores daily and has found himself rewinding games to catch the parts he missed.

Ripken said he’s been surprised by how invested he feels in the Orioles. In the years after he retired, he felt distance from the game was necessary.

“I tried to protect myself by diving into business, because I didn’t want to feel the feeling at spring training that they were leaving me behind,” he said. “Then you get busy doing things, and your life is not surrounded by the ballpark every day. I’m thankful for those 20 years but, coming back, I think I’m better equipped to help.”

It seems apparent that Ripken’s philanthropic leanings will fit in with the new Orioles ownership. Last week, the Orioles and Ravens announced they would each contribute $5 million to the Baltimore Community Foundation’s Key Bridge emergency fund. Pointing to Rubenstein’s history of philanthropy, Ripken said he believes his first year of owning the Orioles will see the Baltimore-born billionaire make community connections.

“I know that’s gonna be his goal, to immerse himself in the community and help build the business all around so that energy in the ballpark is like it was when we first came in,” Ripken said. “We’re just getting started.”

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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