Baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr., aka. “The Iron Man,” was among 200 distinguished guests descending on the town of Washington Sunday evening to toast The Inn at Little Washington chef and proprietor Patrick O’Connell on the occasion of the Inn’s 40th birthday.
“Patrick and I go back probably 30 years — my first visit here was in the 1980s,” Ripken recalled during a pre-dinner champagne and caviar reception held in the Inn’s colonial ballroom, which dates to the 1700s and where George Washington is supposed to have danced the minuet.
“I’ve had an appreciation for Patrick and this place for a long time,” said the former Baltimore Orioles “Hall of Fame” shortstop, who holds the record for consecutive games played — 2,632 — surpassing Lou Gehrig’s otherwise impressive streak of 2,130, which few baseball historians ever thought could be equaled let alone broken.
Ripken said he’s impressed every time he returns to the town of Washington and sees how the Inn’s campus has expanded in “wonderful” ways, whether through acquiring old cottages and homes or adjacent land.
“Over time he’s snapped up this . . . and he’s snapped up that but it’s never lost its original charm,” said Ripken.
Leading several toasts to O’Connell was Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan.
“On our opening night in 1978,” O’Connell had noted in introducing Sullivan, “we asked the then-mayor of Little Washington to cut a ribbon for the grand opening world premier and since then we have had five mayors in this tiny little town.”
“Washington is a small town,” Sullivan told the crowd that included numerous repeat visitors to the Inn, like Ripken. “On a good day there are 150 people living here, which is why we call it Little Washington.”
And then this praise from the mayor: “Washington is known for two people in the history of this town: one is George Washington, and the other is Patrick O’Connell.”
Of the nation’s first president and town namesake, Sullivan said: “We claim that he laid out this town in 1749. It is also well known that he partied and danced in this building.”
And of O’Connell: “By my calculation we have the greatest number of Five Star restaurants per capita in this town than anywhere in this world” — as well as Michelin Star, Five Diamond, and James Beard Award restaurants, the mayor added.
“Patrick is a sheer genius,” Sullivan said, who through his “perseverance started out with almost nothing 40 years ago, and what do we have today? I always believed it is the theatre major in Patrick that makes this place what it is. The food of course is extraordinary, but we all know that we are on stage in this place. It’s a theatrical production created and directed, scripted and scored by Patrick O’Connell. He appeals to us with at least five senses: taste, smell, sight, sound and touch. And he creates memories for us. He is in the business of creating special memories, and we’re all here tonight sharing past memories and we’re here tonight to create new ones.”
Ripken took the time to tell this newspaper that he keeps more than busy these days “in the baseball business with kids.”
“We have a few baseball complexes that we’re looking to scale and put all over the country, so it’s an exciting time,” he said, describing one such stadium complex that is visible from I-95 north of Baltimore.
“You can see the minor league stadium [from the interstate], and the kids’ side is the jewel that’s hidden behind that. So it’s wonderful. The kids get a chance to be like big leaguers in our ballparks.”