FUNNY THING about the Streak. You watch Cal Ripken Jr. grind his
way toward baseball immortality with a string of consecutive
games that is tiring just to contemplate, and you begin to think
of the Oriole shortstop as some kind of robot: Wind him up, and
he just keeps going and going and going.
Something similar happened to the public's perception of Lou
Gehrig, whose record of 2,130 straight games is now threatened
by Ripken's steady march. Gehrig, too, came to be thought of as
the stolid and stoic ballplayer who endured all manner of
suffering with hardly a grimace; even his nickname, the Iron
Horse, made him seem mechanical. In Ripken's case his image as
an iron man has been further shaped by his lack of flamboyance
and his aversion to controversy.
Of course, image isn't everything, no matter what Andre Agassi
used to say. There is an undeniable joy in the way Ripken plays
the game and in the way he lives his life that can be seen only
by looking beyond the public image. Spend a week in the life of
the Oriole iron man, and you begin to see that the Streak is
nothing but a by-product of that joy.
September 14, 1995
The Oriole-Ranger game in Baltimore on July 25 ended at 11:02
p.m. Ripken entered the clubhouse an hour and 20 minutes later,
sweating profusely, and his cap was missing. Outfielder Brady
Anderson was the only other player left in the clubhouse.
"Where have you been?" asked Anderson.
"Working out," said Ripken.
"You were signing, weren't you?"
"You're sick," said Anderson.
For all that time Ripken had been standing next to the Oriole
dugout in full uniform, in sweltering heat, signing autographs,
at least 500 of them. He shook more hands than a presidential
candidate on the stump and smiled for more pictures than Cindy
Crawford. He even gave his hat to an eager young fan. "Gimme
five," Ripken said, slapping hands with a child no taller than
his bat. He signed hats, balls, ticket stubs--even a powder-blue
pillow. "Please make it 'To Grandma,'" the woman said. Another
woman asked, "Do you sign sweaters?" Ripken smiled and declined.
Yet another woman asked, "Do you give kisses?" Ripken chuckled
and said, "No, I'm too sweaty." That didn't seem to faze her,
because her next question was, "Can I have your pants?"
Oriole coach Elrod Hendricks, who has worn a major league
uniform for the past 29 years, says he has never seen a player
sign as often as Ripken has this season. "One night it was 102
degrees, we lost, played terrible, and he signed for every last
fan," Hendricks says.
Anderson shakes his head and says, "Some nights I'll leave the
park and hear a guy say, 'I got Cal's autograph eight times.'
And his friend will say, 'I got it 10 times.' Cal is the most
conscientious player in baseball."
Ripken has always been an easy touch for autograph seekers, but
he is signing more this year, he says, because of the Streak and
because he wants to try to undo some of the damage done by the
baseball strike. On Thursday, July 27, at 9:15 a.m., he went to
the offices of The Tufton Group, the marketing firm that handles
his public relations and his charity foundation, and he spent
some time in a place called the signing room. Ripken usually
goes there once per home stand and signs whatever has been left
for him to autograph. When he's done he always signs an extra
box of baseballs, just to stay ahead of the game and "to soften
the daily barrage," as he puts it. Says Oriole assistant
director of publicity Bill Stetka, "The Streak is going to end
someday, and when it does, it'll be because of a wrist injury
from signing so much."
There is less signing to do on the road, but not much. On his
last day in each town Ripken spends up to an hour autographing
paraphernalia left by opposing players and team officials. After
a game two weeks ago in Kansas City he stood outside the
visitors' dugout in full uniform and signed for 30 minutes. When
he headed for the bus outside Kauffman Stadium, there were
hundreds of fans still screaming for his autograph. It was a
Sunday--"getaway day"--and there was no more time to sign.
Still, Ripken tried to give his cap to a five-year-old. "Would
you like this?" Ripken asked. The boy, no doubt overwhelmed,
said no. Ripken tried again, but he was swept along by the rest
of the players, and the kid was soon lost in the crowd.
If you watch closely, there is something to be learned even in
the way that Ripken approaches the chore of signing autographs.
If he is using a pen that might smear, he blows on his carefully
inked signature so that it doesn't smudge. "With Cal," says
Oriole pitching coach Mike Flanagan, "everything must be done
Ripken got home from Kansas City at 3:30 on the morning of July
24, and three hours later his son, Ryan, was pouncing on him,
not knowing, or caring, that his father had had so little sleep.
Ryan's second birthday was coming up in two days, but since
Monday was an off day for Ripken, the family decided to
celebrate with a pool party at the house. "I was the pool toy,"
Ripken said after the party ended. "I was in the water the whole
time. I had kids all over my back. I guess I should have done
the adult thing and talked to the grown-ups, but I really wanted
to be with my kids."
Ripken lives for his children, Rachel, 5, and Ryan. "They are
the greatest thing that has ever happened to me," he said. "I
think kids are the secret to life. Those who aren't parents are
missing out on that secret."
The Oriole trainers, Richie Bancells and Jamie Reed, brought
their kids to the party, and not necessarily so they could play
with Ripken's kids. "My three kids know that when they go to
Rip's house, they're going there for one reason--to play with
Rip," said Bancells. "Kids love him. But no matter how much fun
they had, he had more. The adults were all sitting on the side
eating crabs and drinking beer, and there's Rip in the pool with
eight kids hanging on him."
"We call him the Pied Piper," said Cal's wife, Kelly. "Kids love
him because he's a kid. Living with him is like living with a
third child." When Cal plays with Ryan, they sometimes do look
like a pair of kids. "I'll dunk," said Cal, "then he'll run up
to his little basket and dunk." For his birthday Ryan got a
miniature locker with his name on it, just like his dad's.
Cal, too, had footsteps in which to follow. His father, Cal Sr.,
worked in baseball for 36 years, and because of that, Cal Jr.
knows what his own prolonged absences mean to his kids. That's
why every morning, no matter how late he gets home from the
previous night's game, Cal gets up and eats breakfast with his
children. Then he takes Rachel to school. "That's Rachel's time,
in the car with me," he said. "It comes from growing up in a
family where the game took my father away on a regular basis.
The most important time between my dad and me wasn't at the
park, it was en route to the park. I didn't go with him so I
could play ball, but just to be with him. That 20 minutes in the
car was why I went. I hope she looks back at our time in the
Lots of people, especially professional athletes, take a room in
their house and convert it into a home gymnasium. Ripken has a
gym that is big enough to convert into a home. He calls it "the
family playhouse" because the kids' toys are in there, but truth
be told, many of the toys belong to him. It is where he plays
basketball in the off-season, where his batting cage is located,
where he lifts weights, where his oscillating tennis ball
machine shoots him grounders, where he plays floor hockey.
Kelly, who stands six feet and was a pretty fair basketball
player in her day, will go one-on-one with Cal from time to
time. In 1973, as a 14-year-old, she finished second in the
state of Maryland in a basketball skills contest. (The finals
were held during halftime of a Baltimore Bullet game.) Kelly
smiles and says, "That was a big thing to Cal because he tried
to win that competition and didn't make it to the finals." She
picks up a ball and playfully starts dribbling, backing him in
toward the basket.
"She fakes the same way every time--watch, there it is," says
Cal. Typical Ripken. He even has a scouting report on his wife.
In fact, he has scouting reports on all the players who play in
his gym. From November through January, five days a week for the
past five years, there has been a pickup game at his gym. Before
that, Ripken and his buddies used to play in a gym at a local
private school, but there usually wasn't anyone good enough to
guard him, and his team won almost every game. Always needing to
be challenged, he began importing players from across Maryland
for a regular game at his home, and he has been doing it ever
since. There is one group of guys who play college ball; they're
young, so they give Ripken his best workout. Another group is
made up of former college and pro players; they have experience,
so they can teach Ripken the finer points of the game. Then
there are games mostly with Ripken's Oriole teammates. "He never
mixes the groups," says Flanagan. "Each one gives him something
different to help his game."
For games this good the best ball is needed; Ripken isn't
satisfied just to have a Spalding NBA ball. He has to have
Spalding game balls, ones that have been sent to him by NBA
teams. "Some balls could be defective," he says. "I want
authentic basketballs." He picks up a Charlotte Hornet game
ball, steps behind the three-point line and drains a jumper.
"It's good!" he yells, and jumps in the air.
Across the floor sits the trampoline that has been set up this
summer for Rachel, especially, to use. According to her mother,
Rachel is "a model-dancer-actress," and she's particularly adept
on the trampoline.
And how about you, Cal?
"I'm O.K.," he says.
He pulls off his shoes, hops on the trampoline and starts
bouncing. Two thousand ninety straight games, 41 away from the
record, and there he is, jumping around like a seventh-grader in
phys-ed class. He demonstrates how to land on the stomach and
bounce back to a standing position. He does the same thing
landing on his back. He does four swivel-hip turns. He does
several flips from his knees. "I can do regular flips, but I'm
not doing them now," he says. "You can get hurt on this thing,
you know. I landed on my shoulder once in the off-season and
Ripken is nothing if not consistent, even in his approach to
something as simple as a home trampoline. Family lore has it
that Cal wouldn't get on the trampoline until he had watched his
wife perform on it a few times. Then he started practicing by
himself. The first time he tried it in front of anyone, he
pretended he had never been on it. "Right," said Kelly with a
smile. "He'd probably had 25 hours of practice."
THE IRON MAN
On the night of July 25, in a 4-3 win over Texas, Ripken fouled
three balls off his foot. Giant third baseman Matt Williams, a
pretty tough guy, broke a bone when he fouled a ball off his
foot in June. Ripken, of course, says he felt no pain.
"He never even limped," says Flanagan. "He gets optical
contusions. You know: He looks like he's gotten hurt, but he
hasn't. I don't think there's any blood in him."
Has Flanagan ever met anyone in baseball with the same tolerance
for pain? "Yes," he says quickly. "His father."
Cal Ripken Sr. is 59 years old and has all the body fat of a
lean 21-year-old. Senior is like an old catcher's mitt:
leathery, tough, resilient. Junior's work ethic, his durability
and his discipline come from his father. "[Cal Sr.] got hit in
the face with a line drive one night in batting practice in
Boston...I mean right in the face," says Flanagan. "The next day
there was no bruise. There wasn't any swelling." Senior had gone
to the hospital for X-rays and was back in the third base
coaching box before the game was over.
"When he played soccer," says Cal Jr., "he'd get kicked in the
foot, and blood would form under his big toenail. He'd come
home, get a drill and drill a hole in the nail. Blood would
spurt out, it would relieve the pressure, and he'd say, 'Aaah.'"
But even Senior can't match his son's ability to play through
injuries. How does Junior do it? "For one thing," jokes
Anderson, "he doesn't have any ligaments in his ankles. They're
gone. That helps." He thinks Ripken's surprising natural
strength helps account for his iron man feats. "It would be
scary how strong he could be if he really lifted weights,"
When it's time to go to the ballpark, the ride is conducted in
silence. Ripken used to listen to the radio, but no longer. It
makes too much noise. For a while he listened to audiotapes of
books because he doesn't have the time to read as much as he
would like to. "He didn't want to waste those 30 minutes driving
in," says Flanagan. "He's always doing something to make himself
Reading demands concentration, and since Ripken wants to devote
most of his energy on game days to the team, he reads only after
games and on planes. (He just finished Atlas Shrugged by Ayn
Rand and now is working on Rand's The Fountainhead.) "My thing
now is having total silence in the car on the way to the game,"
he says. "To concentrate."
He likes quiet. On the road he makes sure his room has a VCR,
because his idea of fun is diving into a movie. Mysteries,
dramas, courtroom movies are his favorites. "Every movie that I
like, I watch two or three times," he says. He has seen The
Silence of the Lambs 20 times. He and Anderson play a game. One
gives a line from a movie, and the other not only has to
identify the movie but also has to give the next line.
After ball games Ripken is usually the last to leave the
clubhouse. The demands of his fame can be tiring, and the
clubhouse serves as a sanctuary. On Wednesday night, July 26, he
left the ballpark at 1:15 a.m., only a little later than usual,
and stopped to say good night to two women, named Jean and
Janet, who also have quite a streak going: Jean hasn't missed an
Oriole home game in 18 years, Janet in 14. As usual, they are
outside the parking lot at Camden Yards waiting to say good
night to Ripken. He stops and gives each of them a can of iced
tea, then drives off into the night.
The week ends for Ripken with a typical Saturday at home: A
morning spent in the gym, highlighted by Cal, Kelly, Rachel and
Ryan bouncing on the trampoline as Dad sings
ring-around-the-rosy. Then into the pool for two hours with the
kids. Then it's on to the ballpark for consecutive game number
And the iron man keeps going and going and going.