The Ripken legend continues to grow

Ken Rosenthal

December 11, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- As the Baltimore Orioles conducted yet another futile round of trade talks 30 miles south, Cal Ripken lunged for grounder after grounder under the hot Florida sun. Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. snapped away, certifying him as a "Living Legend" once and for all.

No exaggeration, folks: Ripken's latest honor is his greatest, at least in scope. Only 10 active sports figures were chosen by SI for Iooss' "Living Legends" photo essay. The 20-page spread will appear in the magazine's coming "Sportsman of the Year" issue.

Winning the MVP and Gold Glove was nice, but this makes Ripken a national icon.Nolan Ryan is the only other baseball player featured. Perhaps you'll recognize the others: Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Montana and Jack Nicklaus; Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova.

Iooss, SI's top photographer, conceived the project last year. Magic Johnson was on the original list of eight, but was dropped after he retired. Larry Bird refused to be included. Lewis was added after his world-record 100 in Tokyo, Connors after his breathtaking performance in the U.S. Open.

Ripken, 31, wasn't notified of his selection until last week. Iooss said, "I guess he's the most controversial choice," but Ripken's spectacular season increased his profile considerably. In Baltimore, of course, he already was a living legend.

"To be in that company, you have to feel very honored," Ripken said during a break in the two-hour shoot. "I was very surprised. In one sense, I kind of asked myself, 'Do I belong?' But then the other side of me said, 'Don't ask any questions, just be thankful you're in it.' "

Ripken's off-season calendar is loaded with awards banquets and charity events, but he cleared yesterday for SI. The magazine paid for his round-trip plane ticket, as well as a chauffeured black limousine. Ripken arrived in Fort Lauderdale at noon.

His first stop was the winter meetings in Miami Beach, where he lunched with his agents, Ron Shapiro and Michael Maas. From there, he went to Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the New York Yankees' spring-training home. The photo session began at 3 p.m.

Iooss wanted nothing less than the quintessential action shot.

Thus, his preparation was elaborate. With the help of three assistants and two painters, he joined two 10-by-12-foot boards to serve as a massive white backdrop. He arranged them between first and second base, on an angle facing the dugout. The bright sun made the backdrop shine.

Ripken dressed in the locker room the Orioles use for their spring exhibitions against the Yankees. He wore a regulation home uniform, right down to the batting gloves in his back pocket. Iooss enlisted two assistant coaches and a former player from the University of Miami to simulate game conditions.

The shoot consisted of two segments -- first fielding, then hitting. Iooss shot 15 rolls of 36 exposures, a total of 540 photos. Against the white backdrop, he captured Ripken lunging to his left as if fielding a ball up the middle. The hitting segment took place on the roof of the stadium, again to best capture the sun.

Ripken was in good spirits, fulfilling Iooss' every request. At one point, he asked if getting his uniform dirty would ruin the shoot. Iooss said no, and heartily encouraged him to dive. "That's so uncharacteristic on my part, so unreal," Ripken shouted back. "I'm never dirty."

The banter remained good-natured throughout. Iooss, squatting 90 feet away in the dugout, instructed the Miami coach hitting to Ripken to "make it difficult." The idea was to get Ripken fully extended. "He's going to dive before it's over," Iooss said. "I know it."

But Ripken, that master of positioning, dived only once. He fielded dozens of grounders and a few line drives, taking an occasional break for a sip of bottled water. Finally, the session adjourned. "Batting on the roof!" Iooss said. "Another normal baseball procedure. Like Japanese spring training."

With that, Ripken changed from his spikes to his turf shoes and climbed the stadium steps. Iooss set up a white screen on the roof, and the other Miami assistant pitched tennis balls from a distance of 20 feet. Ripken blasted them into the parking lot. One of Iooss' assistants chased them down.

The session ended at 5, and Ripken's flight home was at 6. He signed some autographs, took a quick shower and hopped back in the limousine. He expected to walk through his front door no later than 10:30, exhausted and exhilarated, a mere 15 hours after his day had begun.

"This is the fun stuff that goes along with having a really good year," he said. "Early this morning, I thought, 'God, what a long day it's going to be.' But being down here, knowing it's going to come out great, it's worth any small sacrifice you make."

Hey, when you're a living legend, you make do.

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