His own man 'Other' Ripken has shown he has game to go with name

March 06, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

SARASOTA,FLA. — SARASOTA, Fla. -- There was a time when Bill Ripken was like the pesky brat who didn't have enough sense to stay away from the bullies.

You know the type. Every neighborhood has one. He keeps going back for one confrontation after another, because there's nothing better to do -- and he doesn't know any differently. Then one day he grows up and realizes he's not getting pushed around anymore.

The difference was that Ripken wasn't trying to make a neighborhood impression -- he was trying to survive in baseball's minor leagues under the most difficult of circumstances. His father, Cal Sr., was a coach for the Orioles and big brother, Cal Jr., was on his way to becoming the American League's Rookie of the Year when Bill embarked on his career in 1982.

For four years Bill heard the inferences -- that if he had any other name, he'd be in another line of work. "I don't blame those people," said Ripken, "I wasn't very impressive at all."

And though he has never appeared to lack self-confidence, Bill admits his expectations were not very high.

"I don't think I even thought about playing in the big leagues in those days," said Ripken. "I was 17, 18, and 19 those first three years -- and you're half-dumb at those ages. You don't really know what it's all about.

"When I was in Bluefield my first year we opened the season on the road and I stayed back at the hotel with four or five other guys. You talk about demoralizing -- I was 17 years old and I couldn't even go to the game.

"We had some college guys like Jim Traber and Ken Gerhart who were 21 years old and, in a 60-game season, we clinched the pennant with about 20 games to go -- it was a joke. But I got only 40 at-bats that year.

"Then the next year I was left back for extended spring training and had to go to rookie ball again. That was demoralizing incident No. 2."

Ripken was finding out that life in the minor leagues is a matter of survival. "The difference between 17 and 21 is much greater than the difference between 24 and 28," said Ripken, looking back at the formulative years that were agony.

Ripken was playing baseball more from memory than for a purpose. "It was something to do," he said. "Something I expected to do."

Sort of like climbing the hill because it was there. Baseball had always been a main part of his life, so he was playing.

By the time Ripken was 21 he'd spent four seasons in the minor leagues -- none of them very impressively. The scouting report read something like this: "Good genes, good hands, slow bat, average speed, average arm -- no prospect."

But along the way the Orioles noticed things that perhaps weren't detected by other teams. "People don't realize it now, but he was a skinny little runt," said Len Johnston, Bill's manager at Hagerstown in '84 who now serves as the Orioles' spring training coordinator. "Then, after a couple of years, he started to grow, to fill out.

"He always had an aggressive nature and good leadership qualities, and after the third or fourth year he began to show potential of developing into a pretty good player."

It was during the 1986 season, at Double A Charlotte, that Ripken changed categories from suspect to prospect. "I had been told that if you can play at Double A and have some success, you have a chance of playing in the big leagues," said Ripken. "Some guys skip Triple A and go to the big leagues, but very few ever skip Double A to get to Triple A.

"When they put me on the 40-man roster [before 1987], I realized I'd get the chance [to play in the big leagues]."

However, before he made the major-league roster, Cal Sr. became the Orioles' manager. The issue of family ties became even stronger, though by now Bill had some credentials. He had hit .268 and made the Southern League All-Star team while leading the league's second basemen in five defensive categories.

His personal breakthrough came during an abbreviated spring training. The Orioles had veterans Alan Wiggins and Rick Burleson in camp, but Bill got to play just enough to convince the most important person -- himself -- that he could play.

"I got to see some people who were big leaguers and I said to myself, 'I think I can do this,' " said Ripken. It didn't keep him from getting an early sendoff to Rochester.

"That's the irony, I'm sitting in the electric chair getting the news that I can't make the team from the man who was supposedly the only reason I was there," said Ripken. It was Cal Sr., who sent his son to Rochester in the first squad cut of the spring.

Bill went respectfully, but not without leaving some words of wisdom for his dad. "I'm the best second baseman you've got," were his parting words.

He was right. A half-season later he was in the big leagues to stay, and last season showed he could hit as well as field, leading the club with a .291 average, 52 points above his career mark.

Today he teams with brother Cal to form one of the most fluid and effective double-play partnerships in baseball. He will always play in the shadow of his brother, but the "other half" of the combination has earned his own identity.

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