Kelly Ripken: In sickness and in health, this Oriole wife is a valuable player

KELLY RIPKEN: CAL'S MVP

April 12, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

There's The Story . . . the fairy-tale account of how an autographed napkin and a mother playing Cupid helped bring Kelly and Cal Ripken Jr. together; then there's the lesser-known tale of what took place six months later.

The latter begins not with Once upon a time but with a line from Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .

Kelly had just returned from an idyllic trip to Japan with the Orioles in 1984. She and her boyfriend, baseball superstar Cal Ripken Jr., had discussed getting engaged as they waited in a Tokyo airport. Life had never been brighter.

So at first she chalked up the headaches to excitement and stress. But when they were followed by fainting, weight loss, insomnia and nausea, she knew something was seriously wrong.

"I kept saying, 'I'll feel better next week,' " she recalls. "Well, next week turned into three years."

She saw everyone from neurologists to cardiologists to psychiatrists and was tested for everything from a brain tumor to a heart condition to cancer. Though already slim, she lost 25 pounds. And family members watched her become short-tempered and emotional. The fainting forced her to quit her job as an agent in the VIP lounge of Piedmont Airlines.

"I thought I was going crazy. I thought, 'My mind is snapping,' " she says.

Besides her health concerns, there was another fear: Would Mr. Ripken end their relationship?

"I thought, 'I have found the man of my dreams. He is so wonderful and kind and considerate.' . . . Then I got sick and I didn't know whether he was going to say, 'I'm sorry about what's happened to you, but I can't deal with it.'

"But he didn't do that. He stuck by me."

Mr. Ripken stuck by her through 12 doctors and 25 different medications until finally, three years after the symptoms began, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease -- the thyroid condition that also afflicts the President and Barbara Bush.

Ms. Ripken tells this story sitting in a Harbor Court condominium she and her husband rented for Opening Day. She looks the picture of health with her spring training tan, shiny blond hair and lean 6-foot frame. With radioactive treatment and daily medication, she's now able to lead a fairly normal life. But she decided to share this story in part to dispel the myth of the perfect Ripken life.

'We still have problems'

"As much as everyone sees from the outside that our life looks magical, . . . we still have problems. We're like everybody else," says Ms. Ripken, 33.

Not everyone, however, has a husband who makes millions a year or a palatial home on 24 acres in Worthington Valley or fans seeking her autograph. But despite the wealth and fame, Ms. Ripken seems unpretentious and down-to-earth.

One of the most valuable lessons she learned since marrying Mr. Ripken nearly five years ago was the importance of holding on to her own identity. With the shortstop's stellar '91 season -- during which he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player -- Ms. Ripken found herself pinch-hitting as his personal assistant.

"I've told myself this year I'm going to back off from that," she says. "We were starting to get too intertwined. Baseball started spilling over to our personal life. . . . I'm the wife. I don't want to be the secretary."

In the last year, she has become more involved in modeling -- doing a holiday show for I. Magnin in Rockville with the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, and a New York runway show for designer Eleanor Brenner.

The latter appearance created a role reversal for the Ripkens, since Kelly was the star and Cal a supportive member of the audience.

"Just during that short time, the spotlight was on me," she says.

She likes modeling

Although she likes modeling and briefly considered pursuing it as a teen-ager, she's not serious about it now.

"You have to realize that all these models are 19 and 20 years old. Then there's me," she says.

The youngest of three children, Ms. Ripken was born in New Jersey but raised in Cockeysville. She remains close to her parents, Robert and Joan Marie Geer, as well as her brother, Mike, 36, and sister, Holly, 35.

A popular, outgoing teen-ager, Ms. Ripken played many sports, including basketball and softball. Her athletic talents didn't scare off young men, though. She had many would-be boyfriends and was named to the homecoming court at Dulaney High School. Her two trophies -- one for basketball, the other for track and field -- are displayed in the couple's basement in front of her husband's "hundreds," she says.

After graduating in 1977, she went on to get her degree in speech communications from the University of Maryland College Park.

In 1983, however, her life changed when her mother met Cal Ripken Jr. at the Corner Stable restaurant in Cockeysville. She asked for his autograph on a paper napkin and had him make it out to her daughter Kelly.

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