Cal Ripken Jr., the young superstar who plays shortstop for the world champion Baltimore Orioles, approaches life with the supreme self-assurance of one who knew from the cradle what he wanted to be and then not only became exactly that but also, while barely past his majority, among the very best at it. Ripken virtually teethed on a baseball. His father, Cal Sr., was a minor league player in the Orioles' system when Junior (as he is sometimes called) was born, a minor league manager when he was growing up and is now the third-base coach on the team for which he stars. A background like this might seem enviable to the frustrated jocks among us, but psychology cautions that young Ripken could just as easily have rejected his baseball upbringing and gone in another direction entirely. It's the old minister's-son-turned-ganglord story. But no such rebellion occurred here. "From the time Cal was a little tyke," says his mother, Vi, "all he ever wanted to be was a ballplayer." "His mother and I never forced anything on him," says Cal Sr. "He just liked to play." So he became a ballplayer.
Well no, he didn't just become a ballplayer. He became the consummate ballplayer, a Rookie of the Year in his first season, a Most Valuable Player on a championship team in his second, a young man of 23 so obsessed with catching, throwing and hitting baseballs that he barely acknowledges the more frivolous pursuits common to males of his age. Ripken grows vague when he's asked what else interests him in the vast panorama of late-20th-century living. "Baseball's a full time job," he'll say. "I really haven't had time to explore other things." Tall, handsome and personable, he's catnip to the ladies, and he likes them fine, too, but he has no steady girlfriend and, says his road roommate. Rick Dempsey, "He's no womanizer." "It takes a special kind of person to become a baseball wife," says Ripken, who knows all about that because his mother is one.
Dempsey, whom Ripken visited in Agoura, Calif. this past winter, has tried to get his roomie interested in boating and surfing, and he may yet succeed, although it has been far from smooth sailing because on most boats there's scarcely room to play catch. On the other hand, you could play pepper in his suburban Baltimore condo because his living room is barren of furniture. Ripken was a good student at Aberdeen High School in Maryland, especially in math, but he exhibits only minimal interest in the imposing numbers of the four-year, $4 million contract he recently signed with the Orioles. He's the only third-year player in the history of the game to be so richly rewarded and, with star first baseman Eddie Murray, only the Orioles' second million-dollar-a-year baby. "Even when I signed that contract," says Ripken, "I didn't fully realize what it was. I can tell you what a $20 bill is like because I can hold it in my hand. But the rest is all numbers. I'm satisfied, though. I ought to be."
Ripken looks about as uncomfortable out of his uniform as Douglas MacArthur did out of his. He misses the game so much in the winter that he cannot walk by his glove, hanging in the closet, without putting it on and slamming a ball into it. He has a special empathy for fans because he's still one himself, a rooter who gets nearly as much fun out of watching a game—very intensely—as he does playing. In essence, he's living out a Damn Yankees kind of fantasy; he's a latter-day Joe Hardy with his soul intact. He's not about to snub autograph seekers because it wasn't that long ago that he was one. The part of baseball that most players find annoying—the incessant travel and long absences from family—are no problem for him because he's lived that way all his life. In short, if Dr. Frankenstein were to assemble the working parts for the √úbermensch ballplayer, he would create a Cal Ripken Jr. If the modern day equivalent of the mad doctor, the computer, were to be fed the necessary components for an MVP, it would cough up a Ripken.
April 2, 1984
This isn't to say he became a star overnight. Ripken was a runty 5'7", 128-pounder as a high school freshman. He grew about an inch the next year, then started to shoot up as a junior. When he graduated, a star pitcher and shortstop as well as a letter-winner in soccer, he was a slatty 6'2", 180-pounder, who batted with little power. He hit not a single home run in his first year as a minor-leaguer and only eight the next. But he hit 25 homers for Class AA Charlotte in 1980 and 23 the next year for Class AAA Rochester.
In his Rookie of the Year season with the Orioles, he had 28 homers and drove in 93 runs despite a horrendous 7-for-60 (.117) slump over his first 18 games and the pressures of a shift from third base to shortstop in midseason. Last year, playing every inning, every day, he, in Dempsey's words, "took this game by storm," batting .318 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs and leading the league in hits (211), runs (121) and doubles (47). He was 6'4" and 210 pounds last season. He's grown a half-inch and added five pounds for this season. "I can't believe it," he says. "I'm still growing."
A big man with power, he certainly doesn't look or hit like a shortstop. Robin Yount had a big power season for Milwaukee in '82 (29 homers, 114 RBIs), but slipped in '83 (17, 80) because of injuries. Before him, only Vera Stephens of the Red Sox in the late '40s and Ernie Banks in the late '50s were premier home run hitters at a position traditionally manned by Munchkins with names like Pee Wee Rabbit and Scooter.
Ripken may well be the biggest shortstop ever to play the game. He's nearly three inches taller and a good 40 pounds heavier than Marty Marion and Buddy Kerr, two shortstops of the '40s who were considered Brobdingnagian in their time. Joe Cronin in the '30s was considered a big shortstop, but he wasn't quite 6 feet tall. Harvey Kuenn was a 6'2" shortstop when he started his career with the Tigers. Tony Kubek was 6'3", but he wasn't strictly a shortstop for the Yankees of the '50s and '60s. Banks was 6'1" and so was Ripken's illustrious predecessor on the Orioles, Mark Belanger, but Belanger, for all of his defensive artistry, couldn't hit the ball out of your dining room. Dave Concepcion of the Reds is 6'1" and Yount and Alan Trammell of the Tigers are an even 6 feet. The greatest of all shortstops, Honus Wagner, was a big man—5'11" and 200 pounds—but Ripken would have towered over him.
Traditionalists at first considered Ripken's size a defensive drawback, but he has made believers of almost everyone by now, including a few skeptics in his own organization. "He played shortstop in high school, but we didn't think that would be his position as a pro," says Orioles general manager Hank Peters. "Our staff thought third base would be his best position in the long run." And that's where he played the first half of his rookie year until Earl Weaver, sensing his potential, switched him to short on July 1. Since then he has played every inning of 253 straight games at the position. Last year he led major league shortstops in assists (534) and the American League with 831 total chances, only three fewer than the number accepted by the major league leader, the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith, a jackrabbit whose modest physique conforms more to the shortstop mold. "If Cal hadn't hit so well," says Baltimore manager Joe Altobelli, "people would be raving about him as a shortstop. If he plays 10 years at short, he'll put numbers on the board that'll be earth shattering." "Everybody said he didn't have the range," says Milwaukee manager Rene Lachemann. "All I know is, he makes all the plays." "To tell you the truth," says Yount, "I haven't seen any weaknesses in his game. Looking at his size, you might not think he has the range, but that could be deceiving because he positions himself so well. I don't see too many balls that get through him. He's got great hands. And it seems like he's always in the right place." "Ripken surprised me when I first saw him," says Trammell, the brilliant Detroit shortstop who himself hit .319 with 14 homers in '83. "I thought he was too big to play shortstop, but he's played a helluva game there."
"It seems to me like he's played shortstop all his life," says Orioles reliever Tippy Martinez. "He's like Belanger in that he knows where to play the hitters and he knows whether the pitcher has his good stuff or not. He has such a feel for the game."
Ripken's dad, paternalism aside, has his own views on outsized shortstops. "It used to be that short, second and center-field were all little guy positions," he says. "Here was your defensive strength up the middle, but none of them could hit with power. Well, I think you can stick that theory. Give me nine big guys out there every time. You take a long-legged sumbitch like this guy here," he says of his son, "and he'll take two steps to some little guy's six and get the ball faster."
After practice Ripken is eating a hamburger in the English Pub, a Key Biscayne restaurant about 20 minutes from the Orioles' spring training headquarters in Miami. He's an impressive specimen, but he speaks in a high flutish voice, and, munching his burger, he seems very much a boy.
"I've got two brothers," he says between bites. "Billy is 19 and a ballplayer. Played at Bluefield last year, our rookie club. He's a shortstop, too, but he can play them all. If he comes up, I might move back over to third, although I'd much rather have a double-play combination of Ripken-to-Ripken-to-Murray. I've got another brother a year younger than me, Fred. He's a natural athlete, maybe the best of all of us, but he never wanted to play that much. Me, I was always around the ball park. I could never get enough of it."
He pauses in uncomfortable reflection. "Maybe Fred got too much of it. I think he just got tired of baseball. He wanted other things in life. He's a motorcycle mechanic, self-taught. He just got married, and he's on his honeymoon. He's very happy and content. You know, even if you're in the family of a ballplayer, you've got to make sacrifices. There are no vacations at the beach in a family like that. My sister, Elly, is 25, the oldest. She's an athlete, too. In fact, until I was in the 10th grade in high school, she could throw harder than I could. I got teased about that." He laughs in memory of that improbable circumstance. The Ripken arm now is a cannon, so strong that the Orioles drafted him as an infielder and pitcher.
"We've always been a close family," Ripken continues. "Three of us kids were only about a year apart. We played together all the time. We had few other friends. We were always in strange places and always together. As soon as school was out, we'd be off to where dad was. Mom would pack egg salad sandwiches and it would be like a big picnic. Everybody talks about how much of an influence my dad must have been on me, but the truth is I really didn't see that much of him at all. When I look back on it, I really have to tip my hat to my mom. She took me to all of my games, congratulated me if I did well, consoled me if I didn't. When dad was managing in Asheville [1972-'74], I'd be out at the ball park every day. I'd watch those games intently. Other kids would be wandering through the stands, but I'd be sitting behind the screen finding out what the pitchers were throwing. After the game, I'd wait until the reporters were gone, then I'd start asking my dad questions. I always wanted to know why he did something. By the time I was ready to play, I knew the proper way to do things. I knew the Oriole way. I'd known how they did it since I was little. Nobody had to tell me what the Oriole cutoff play was. When I was a kid I had the luxury of going to a Doug DeCinces or an Al Bumbry and ask them how to do things. What other kid gets the chance to go to players of this caliber?
"The Orioles were my only team—for obvious reasons. I grew up around them. But there was a side of me that hoped, when I was ready for the draft, that somebody else would take me. I didn't want to think that I was only being drafted because of my dad. But what it finally boiled down to was that I wanted to be an Oriole. I just said to myself, I can take the criticism. And my first two years I got it. I had to prove myself. I had to prove to everyone that I wasn't there just because of my father. It was tough because I made mistakes like everybody else. I knew a lot, but I still had a lot to learn. By Double A, I felt more like I belonged. But then in the big leagues, all the players had heard about me and everybody seemed to expect me to be a superstar right away. I went 3 for 5 on Opening Day and then hit that slump. But they stuck with me, and the fans never stopped supporting me. So, little by little, I came back.
"I've been very lucky. It's been a good life. I enjoy being around people. I leave about 25 percent of my time for myself and the rest for others. When people approach me in a restaurant, I enjoy that more than they know. A lot of people are hesitant to come up to me, but they shouldn't be. I'm a fan, too. I enjoyed the game just as much when I was sitting in the stands. You remember in the '79 World Series when all the Baltimore fans were chanting, 'Ed-die, Ed-die' for Murray? Well, I was one of them. I think everybody enjoys recognition. Oh, not like the kind Michael Jackson gets, maybe. I'll never reach that extreme. I just want to be recognized for baseball. I want to be known as a good ballplayer. I'd like to be remembered. I'd like to think that some day two guys will be talking in a bar and one of them will say something like, 'Yeah, he's a good shortstop, but he's not as good as old Ripken was.' I'd like it if there were some 8-year-old kid out there now imitating my batting stance. That's what I always did."
Cal Ripken Sr., who at 48 looks older than his years, belying the quaint notion that those who hang around the young stay young, prefers to think of himself as "everyone's dad" on the Orioles. When Cal Jr., mildly upset in one spring session because he couldn't seem to get enough batting practice, complained to his dad, "Hey, you're supposed to take care of your oldest son in spring training," Cal Sr. replied, "Right now, I'm taking care of my son Dan Ford [the Orioles' rightfielder]."
Cal Sr. does seem to be something of a father figure with the Oriole players, many of whom played for him at some juncture in their climb to the majors. "He certainly did a lot to settle me down when I got to Asheviile after being such a hot shot at USC," says Rich Dauer, the Orioles' second baseman. "Yes, he was like a dad." When Weaver retired at the end of the '82 season, Cal Sr. made no secret of his ambition to replace him. He swallowed hard when Altobelli got the job, but such is his loyalty to the Baltimore organization that he asked to be retained as a coach.
Fathers and sons on the same team are rare in baseball. Only the Macks (Connie and Earle) and the Hegans (Jim and Mike) come to mind. A certain adjustment is usually required of the parties involved in situations of this sort. But not with the Ripkens. They're pals. An evening with the two of them is a relaxed gabfest, a seminar on baseball, a clinic, an orgy of reminiscence.
"Cal's uncle Bill—my brother—was a great two-strike hitter," says Cal Sr. as he and Cal Jr. are having drinks at Miami's Hyatt Regency. "I used to get upset with him when we were kids in semi-pro ball because he knew he could hit with two strikes, but I didn't know it. He'd surprise me. He knew what he wanted up there. Cal's the same way."
"It's the ultimate confrontation," says Cal Jr. "With two strikes on you, you know you're on the ropes and you've got to fight back."
"It's a very simple game—a ball, a bat and a glove," says Senior. "Then humans get involved and make it complicated."
"What you don't realize when you're in the minors," says Junior, "is that you're being molded all the time. By Double A ball, it seems to fit and make sense. That's the biggest jump there is—from A to Double A. That's when you start seeing 3-2 breaking balls and 2-0 changeups."
"I managed in this organization for 14 years," says Senior, "and I can tell you it's designed perfectly to take care of age and ability, to getting the right people in the right place."
They are in high gear now, seeming not so much blood relatives as old teammates with shared knowledge and opinions. The father-son distinction vanishes in hot-stove-league chatter, surviving only as a source of humor.
"I'm entitled to open all mail in the clubhouse addressed to Cal Ripken," says Senior. "After all, I was here first. It's not my fault your mother named you Cal Jr. I didn't have anything to do with it. I was playing ball in Topeka, Kansas, the night you were born."
"Wait till I have a Cal III, then there'll be real confusion," says Junior, and they both laugh at the prospect of yet another shortstop in the family.
The Ripkens, p√®re and fils, inhabit a special world. They are willing prisoners there, perceiving all things from the vantage point of that world. Cal Sr. first met his wife while watching her play softball in high school. "She was a good hitter," he says. Years later, he watched his daughter Elly play. "Be damned if she didn't backhand a ball and throw right over the top. She rifled that seed. I asked myself, 'Now, where in hell did she learn to do that?' I'd been teaching my players that for years and here I am sitting watching my own daughter do it better than anybody."
Cal Jr. is back in the world of baseball present on a pleasant February day in Miami, playing pepper with teammates Ken Singleton and Dauer. This is no mere exercise in hand-eye coordination. They've made a game of it. The batter must keep the ball within strict boundaries, defined by the backstop. He's scored on how many times he can hit the ball within the boundaries. With Ripken at bat, the record stands at 20. He counts each stroke in his shrill voice: "18"...ping..."19"...ping.... At 20 he fairly shrieks as his fielders toss down their gloves. "You only tied it," says Dauer. He tosses the ball back to Ripken, who hits it cleanly back to him. Twenty-one and the record for the day! Ripken jumps up as if auditioning for a Toyota commercial. "I did it," he shouts. "I'm the king! Yes, the king. You can call me King!"
He was probably kidding, but, after all, in his world, where the MVP is royalty, he is the king, and there are many who say his reign will be a long one.