The tunnel that leads from the visitors' dugout to the clubhouse at the Metrodome in Minneapolis is long and steep—11 steps, a landing, 11 steps, a landing, 11 more steps. Every time the Baltimore Orioles play there, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. finishes his pregame infield practice, races off the field and sprints up the stairs. The object of the game he invented is to get to the top in the fewest strides. "He can do it in six," Oriole manager John Oates says. "It's ridiculous. It's amazing."
Before one game last year, Rene Gonzales, then an Oriole infielder, became the only other player known to have made it to the top in six. That day Ripken took seven, falling on his back at the finish. "After that crushing defeat," Ripken says, "I did it again, just to prove to myself I could make it."
He had to do it. Ripken's life is about wanting to play, to win, to be the best. Some athletes share his simple philosophy, but no one in major league baseball lives it as vigorously or as passionately as Ripken. That in part explains why he has been the best player in baseball this year, why he's a future Hall of Famer, why he may eventually be recognized as the greatest shortstop in American League history and why, as of Sunday, he had played in 1,502 straight games, 1,066 more than any other active player.
"He doesn't ever want to lose, even in these tiny games," says Oriole outfielder Brady Anderson. "He makes up games. Like sockball [baseball played with a taped-up sock] in the hallway during rain delays. He's sweating his butt off, then goes out and gets two hits. At Anaheim Stadium there's a stretch of grass, dirt, grass. After we do our stretching, he and I always have to long-jump over the dirt. It's at least 15 feet. He makes it, of course. I said to him once, 'How did you make it easier than I did?' He said, 'I always assumed I could jump farther than you.' "
Anderson laughs. "In spring training we have the 12-minute run," he says. "You don't have to try. He tries. He comes to me before the race and plans it out, how we're going to run it." Anderson won it last spring. "He got mad at me," said Anderson. "He said I went out too fast, I ruined him, I broke him down."
Oates laughs. "Last week, Cal had gone two games without a hit, so he wanted to take extra hitting," he says. "He hasn't missed an infield or batting practice in 10 years. Early hitting takes an hour. So I tell him to come out for just the last 15 minutes and hit. He said, 'No, I want to shag.' After a while I look around, and he and [infielder] Tim Hulett are climbing the outfield fence, trying to see who can swat away [designated hitter] Sam Horn's home runs in batting practice."
Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan understands Ripken's need to excel in whatever he tries. "I was that way until I started playing pro ball," he says. "But pro ball is so demanding, I lost some of my desire in other sports. It didn't matter anymore if I won in Ping-Pong. But it matters to him. Basketball is the perfect example."
Until the gymnasium he built at his house was completed in December—it has a basketball court, scoreboard, weights, batting cage, etc.—Ripken, teammates and friends played basketball three nights a week for four winters at Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School. At Bryn Mawr, you could learn more about Ripken than you could by watching him play shortstop at Memorial Stadium.
No fans were watching, there was no image to uphold and no iron man streak on the line, but every game at Bryn Mawr was like the seventh game of the World Series to Ripken. He was a madman on the offensive and defensive boards. He dived for loose balls. If the big man he was guarding was slow getting down the floor, Ripken harassed the little guard bringing the ball up. In basketball as in baseball, Ripken isn't a marvelously skilled or graceful player, but he was the best at Bryn Mawr. Ripken was so dominating that new players—all big—were recruited to guard him and make the games fairer. He pounded them, too.
"It's the last game of the night, and he gets mad when everyone is tired and he's still going," says Flanagan, a regular at Bryn Mawr and last winter at Ripken's gym. Oriole second baseman Bill Ripken, who gets his older brother the ball in baseball and basketball, marvels at the energy level of a man so big—6'4", 225 pounds. "He's nonstop. Everyone else is gassed, and he's dunking," Bill says. "I like how he gets ticked off, with nothing on the line, in a pickup game."
That happens when a teammate dribbles with his head down. In baseball, Ripken gets ticked when a teammate throws to the wrong base or an Oriole pitcher unexpectedly throws inside instead of outside, leaving Ripken out of position. "He has no patience for anyone who plays the game incorrectly," says Flanagan.
Flanagan can't figure how Ripken keeps going. "Guys are dragging after a game, and he's in the back of the bus whooping it up. I've never seen him sleeping in a corner."
Oates says, "Everything's a game, a competition, to him. I wouldn't want to be his kid. He might play checkers with his child, and Rip would get upset because she didn't crown him soon enough."
Ripken is amused by the exaggeration, but says, "I split my head open playing checkers once." In complete detail, he describes a checkers game he played against the girl next door when he was six years old. He describes his strategy to set her up for a five-jump move. She fell for it, and he won the game, leapt and banged his head on a concrete windowsill. He needed stitches, but it was a great move.
"I grew up in a family where everything was a competition," says Ripken. "Everything you did, it was fun, you did well, you tried hard. If you didn't, it wasn't fun. I miss gym class in school, where you learned a lot of different sports. My biggest dream as a kid was to make it in baseball, then go to the Superstars competition. When my chance came, I had no time to prepare, so I didn't go. I wasn't going to go down there and just go through the motions."
That's one of Ripken's great fears in life: being unprepared, especially for a sport. That's why he studies pitchers, hitters, teams. That's why he's the master of defensive positioning at shortstop. "But even in basketball he'll tell me before a game, 'Remember, this guy can't go to his right,' " says Gonzales. "He even analyzes a stupid pickup game."
After last year, when he batted only .250, Ripken analyzed his swing, his approach, everything, and worked maniacally in the off-season to improve. "He was on a mission," says Flanagan. Ripken says, "I got away last year from what made me successful. I looked in the mirror and asked, 'Is my talent dwindling?' Instead of thinking that you're going to have a long career, you're doubting yourself, worrying. This year I've gotten things more in focus, and it's taken away any doubts."
This year, Ripken, 30, who was the American League MVP in 1983, has reached a new level. Through Sunday he was leading the league in hitting (.332) and had 21 homers and 61 RBIs with only 26 strikeouts and five errors. Should he finish the season with a .325 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs, he would become only the eighth righthanded hitter in the past 50 years to reach those numbers.
He's a candidate for MVP even though the Orioles are in sixth place in the American League East. He has an outside shot at the Triple Crown. He earned MVP honors in the All-Star Game with a three-run homer in the American League's 4-2 win. The previous day, he put on a phenomenal show in the All-Star home run contest, swatting 12 in 22 swings. All this has elevated Ripken to a new stature. Baltimore columnist John Steadman wrote last Friday in The Evening Sun that Ripken has replaced Brooks Robinson as the greatest player in franchise history.
Baseball insiders are beginning to calculate where Ripken rates among the greatest shortstops ever. "He's in the top five now," says Royals assistant general manager Joe Klein.
As of Sunday, Ripken had 238 homers as a shortstop (his career total is 246)—56 short of Ernie Banks's record. Where does he rate with the best shortstops? Honus Wagner hit .327 for his career, with 3,418 hits. Banks hit 40 homers and had 100 RBIs five times in eight full seasons at the position. Arky Vaughan's lifetime average was .318. Joe Cronin hit a career .301 with 1,424 RBIs. Luis Aparicio revolutionized base stealing and was brilliant defensively. They're all Hall of Famers. Should Ripken do for the next five seasons what he will average for his first 10, he will go down, after Wagner, as the second-best shortstop in history.
The sad part is it shouldn't have taken a .332 average and a home run show at the All-Star Game to open the baseball world's eyes to his accomplishments. It's a crime that Ripken didn't win the Gold Glove last year, when he committed just three errors, none on the grass field at Memorial Stadium, breaking the major league record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop. Through Sunday he had made nine errors in his last 306 games. But not even managers and coaches, who do the voting, can fully appreciate Ripken by watching him 12 or so times a year. That's because he doesn't have the range of the Chicago White Sox's more spectacular Ozzie Guillen, who did win last year's Gold Glove despite making 17 errors. "I'm embarrassed by my peers," said Texas manager Bobby Valentine, one of those who voted for Ripken over Guillen.
Offensively, Ripken has more extra-base hits than any other American League player over the past 10 years. He's one of eight players in history to hit 20 homers his first 10 seasons in the majors.
And the streak? "He's the only man in baseball who could do it," says Seattle second baseman Harold Reynolds. "He's a stud." Ripken is 629 consecutive games away from breaking a record (2,130, by Lou Gehrig) that was believed to be unapproachable. But he had to defend the streak last year to Orioles fans who looked at his batting average (.256) from 1987 to '90 and claimed he was tired. In this era, when players are constantly missing games with injuries, the fans should have been carrying him off the field on their shoulders.
"I've never heard him say, 'I'm not feeling so good today,' " says Oriole first baseman Randy Milligan. "I say that every day."
Ripken is respected by fans and sportswriters, yet until this year there were those who said he was too big or too slow to play shortstop. Nothing could be further from the truth. But you need to see him play every day to appreciate how reliable he is defensively. He isn't flashy in anything he says or does. At a time when other players publicly blast teammates, managers and opponents, complain about making "only" $3 million a year, and moan about the length of the season, Ripken shuts up and plays. In interviews he chooses every word carefully. Never has he publicly criticized an opponent or an umpire. Even when his father, Cal Sr., whom he worships, was replaced as Oriole manager after six games of the 1988 season—he's now an Oriole coach—Ripken was diplomatic in his remarks.
What opponents and teammates admire most about Ripken is his durability, desire and ability to make the most of what he has. He isn't fast. He isn't particularly smooth. Former California Angels manager Gene Mauch once said Ripken had the worst swing of any great player he had ever seen.
"He doesn't have Canseco's swing," says Oates. "Or Dunston's throw. Or Ozzie Smith's ability to come in on a ball. He doesn't do anything that would wake up an opponent. He just beats them. But the bottom line is, if I'm pitching and I have runners at first and third with one out, the one guy I want the ball hit to is Cal Ripken, because I know the game's over. He's boring to watch for one game. But he's a joy to watch for a season."
The joyous individual season for Ripken reached its high point last Friday at Memorial Stadium with a pregame tribute in which he was presented with the van he won for being the MVP in the All-Star Game. He donated it to the reading program he and his wife, Kelly, established in Baltimore two years ago. He received thunderous applause for winning the MVP and for reaching his 1,500th consecutive game that night, and then he celebrated by hitting his 20th homer in a 4-1 victory over Seattle. He dislikes talking about the streak and the media hoopla that accompanies it, but after this game he said, "I hold this night deep."
He will surely hold this season deep, should the Orioles start playing better and should he continue his remarkable play. But no matter what awards he wins, what adulation he receives, nothing will change. He will work harder next winter, he will try to beat Anderson in the 12-minute run next spring, he will long-jump the dirt in Anaheim and remain the best sockball player on the Orioles. And when he gets to the Metrodome next year, he will race up the 33 steps in the tunnel. He will try to reach the top in five strides, just to see it he can do it.