"He wrote, 'To Kelly, if you look anything like your mother, I'm sorry I missed you,' which is very out of the ordinary for him. His typical line is, 'All my best,' " says Ms. Ripken.
Ms. Ripken's mother called her with the news. "She said, 'You're never going to believe whose autograph I got for you -- Cal Ripken.' I said, 'That's great, Mom, but who is he?' "
She found out two months later when she met the baseball player at Christopher's nightclub in Cockeysville.
Her friend, Patty Buddemeyer, who was with her that night, says getting Ms. Ripken to approach the baseball star wasn't easy. "She must have stood up and sat down 10 times before she got the nerve up to go over to him. And Cal must have had a million women around him," she says.
But when they finally met, the chemistry was right. He remembered her mother and asked Ms. Ripken for her telephone number. "I thought he was just being polite, but he called the next day," she says.
They married in November 1987. She can get his autograph anytime now, but has kept the napkin for sentimental reasons. The quality that Ms. Ripken still appreciates most about her husband is his thoughtfulness. For her birthday last month, Mr. Ripken, who was in the midst of spring training, organized a romantic day for two, including three dozen roses, champagne, a specially ordered Italian dinner and a diamond bracelet.
Perhaps that's why there's a wistfulness in her voice when she talks about the '92 season. "I have mixed feelings about the new season," she admits. "It means I lose a husband for seven months."
She hopes to go on more road trips this year, having only made two last year. But since their daughter is a toddler, Ms. Ripken won't be attending many night games. Rachel did accomplish a first on opening day -- making it through an entire game without napping or growing restless.
Aware of the stereotype
Ms. Ripken is also keenly aware of the stereotype that exists about baseball wives. When she and her husband recently attended the opening of Planet Hollywood, New York's hot new restaurant, she wound up talking to a TV producer, who gave her his vision of the "typical baseball wife."
"It was something to the effect of . . . 'You all go to the game and watch your husbands and gossip.' He saw us as this little groupie section, and the only thing we were wrapped up in was baseball," she says incredulously.
In fact, she has stopped sitting with the other Oriole wives since fans made it impossible to watch the game. And having grown up in Maryland, she has many friends here outside the world of baseball.
"A lot of the younger players' wives are intimidated by her," explains her friend, Jill Olson, who is married to relief pitcher Gregg. "It's real hard for people to approach her. They don't give her a chance."
If Kelly Ripken has had to sacrifice anything, it's been privacy. On the weekends, cars often stop to gaze at their home.
"She doesn't feel like she can do what she wants because someone's always watching," says Ms. Buddemeyer. "We can't go out and have a drink because somebody might misconstrue it and turn it into something it's not."
Ms. Ripken says, "Every now and then it can get to be too much. What I do then is just stay in my home. But for Cal, I wouldn't want it any other way. By not having that privacy, it shows me that my husband is doing his job and people appreciate how hard he works."
Daughter is first priority
The Ripkens' daughter is their first priority these days. Whenever they can, they prefer spending time at home with her. Their home is considered their last refuge, and they decline to be interviewed there. Ms. Ripken spent two years decorating it with the help of Federal Hill Interiors. There are 16 rooms, including six bedrooms and a gym with a basketball court. She calls the style "soft contemporary" and the basement with Mr. Ripken's trophies and plaques "Cal's Shrine."
Rachel is at an age where she now understands her father plays baseball, although for a short time she was mistaking every ballplayer on television for her father. She also shows signs of having inherited her parents' athletic skills.
"The genes are definitely there," Ms. Ripken says. "Pam Shriver told us whenever we're ready, she's ready to teach her."
There is a 50 percent chance Rachel will also develop Graves' disease, a fact that leaves Ms. Ripken constantly on the lookout for symptoms.
As for her own illness, she has blood tests every six weeks to monitor her condition. By altering her diet, she has learned to live with the headaches and occasional nausea. What's taken more time to adjust to is the anger she felt toward doctors who knew her own mother had the disease and misdiagnosed her.
The illness made her pregnancy more complicated, but the Ripkens are now thinking of having more children.
"There are side effects you have to live with the rest of your life," she says. "But maybe this has made me a better person. Maybe it's made me value my health more and my family more."
THE RIPKEN FILE
Born: March 26, 1959; Mount Holly, N.J.
Education: Graduated from Dulaney High School in 1977 and the University of Maryland College Park in 1981 with a B.A. in speech communications.
Family: Married since 1987 to Oriole shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr.; daughter, Rachel, 2 years, 4 months.
Current home: Worthington Valley.
What she can do better than her husband: Get up early.
How she can tell when her husband is in a bad mood: "He doesn't say anything, but he's very rarely in a bad mood."
How she explains her husband's job to their daughter: "I say Daddy is at work. I don't say Daddy is playing baseball. I want her to understand that this is her father's job."