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 Cal Jr. was
born, a minor league manager while 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-gang-lord 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."
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 1995 issue
Well, he didn't just become a ballplayer. He became the
consummate ballplayer, a Rookie of the Year in his first season
(1982), a Most Valuable Player on a world 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
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 Ripken's
suburban Baltimore condo because his living room is barren of
furniture. He was a good student at Aberdeen (Md.) High,
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.
"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 uebermensch
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.
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 the 1984 season. "I
can't believe it," he says. "I'm still growing."
A big man with power, Ripken certainly doesn't look or hit like
a shortstop. Robin Yount had a big power season for the Brewers
in 1982 (29 homers, 114 RBIs), but slipped in '83 (17 homers, 80
RBIs) because of injuries. Before him only Vern Stephens of the
Red Sox in the late '40s and Ernie Banks of the Cubs 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. 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. The greatest of all shortstops, Honus Wagner, was a
big man--5'11" and 200 pounds--but Ripken would have towered
At first, traditionalists 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
third base the first half of his rookie year until Oriole
manager Earl Weaver, sensing Ripken's potential, switched him to
short on July 1, 1982. 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 in
total chances (831), 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
"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."
Ripken's dad, paternal pride aside, has his own views on
outsized shortstops. "It used to be that short, second and
centerfield were all little-guy positions," Cal Sr. says. "They
were 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. 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.
"The Orioles were my only team--for obvious reasons," he says.
"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 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 in the organization I got it. 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."
Cal 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. grew mildly upset in one spring session because he
couldn't seem to get enough batting practice, he complained to
his dad, saying, "Hey, you're supposed to take care of your
oldest son in spring training." To which Cal Sr. replied, "Right
now, I'm taking care of my son Dan Ford [the Orioles'
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
"Cal's uncle Bill--my brother--was a great two-strike hitter,"
says Cal Sr. "I used to get upset with him when we were kids in
semipro 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. You've got to
"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
"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, pere 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, Ellen, 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 Rich Dauer. This is no mere exercise in hand-eye
coordination. They've made a contest 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.