Cal Ripken's family circle is broken, but games go on

February 26, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The first day of full-squad workouts made (( for some crowded conditions at Twin Lakes Park yesterday, but Cal Ripken was all by himself for the first time in his major-league career.

The opening of Orioles spring training used to be a family affair. Bill Ripken already would have pulled the first practical joke of the preseason. Cal Ripken Sr. already would have pulled the wrapper off a new pack of Luckies and posted the work schedule for the day. Cal Jr. always felt right at home.

"It's a little different," Ripken said. "It's not like it has been for my other 12 or 13 springs. I don't know how to put my feelings into words. I'm used to having my dad here. That hurts. You get used to having your brother taking ground balls next to you. It's strange that he's not here. In some ways, I felt like I was lost out there."

Now, when he looks to his left, he will see second baseman Harold Reynolds, a former All-Star who was signed as a free agent the day Bill Ripken was released by the Orioles. Now, when he needs someone to hit him ground balls, it likely will be Mike Ferraro, who has taken Cal Sr.'s place on the coaching staff.

It is all part of the game. Players come and go. Coaches get hired and fired. But the Ripkens had been the first family of Baltimore baseball for so long that it came as a tremendous shock when the club asked Cal Ripken Sr. to give up his place on the major-league coaching staff and accept a minor-league assignment. He chose retirement instead.

The announcement that Bill Ripken had been released was even more unexpected. Second base did not appear to be an off-season priority until the club signed Reynolds.

Cal Ripken understands all this on a professional level. It's just not the kind of thing that you can expect anyone to handle dispassionately.

"He and I talked at length," manager Johnny Oates said. "It's going to be different. He's probably going to be a little lonely. If I know Junior, the first few days are going to be rough, but he's a professional." I don't expect him to be clicking his heels about it, but I don't expect him to do anything different."

Ripken arrived at spring training in typically great physical shape. He is coming off a difficult season that he says motivated him to work even harder than usual during the winter. He seems ready to move ahead with a new and improved team, but he isn't quite ready to put the past behind him. Blood is thicker than baseball.

"You grow up wanting to be a pro ballplayer, and you make it," he said. "Your dad is a coach, and it's against the odds that you're going to end up on the same team. Then your brother comes up, and the odds are against him making the major leagues. I feel like we beat the odds.

"It was kind of nice because baseball was something that separated us as a family. My dad was away a lot when I was a kid. Then it brought us back together, and my dad was there if I needed him, and my brother was there. It's still a positive, but there's some hurt that goes with it."

The changes caught him by surprise, he said, even though there had been speculation that Cal Sr. and Bill would find their jobs less secure once Cal Jr. was under contract. Two months after he signed a five-year, $30.5 million deal, the dominoes began to fall, but he chooses not to believe that the club was working with a hidden agenda.

"I refused to think that way," he said. "I had to look at my contract from the standpoint of what was best for me and my immediate family. I refuse to believe that is what happened. If all those things were connected, I'd be pretty disgusted."

Cal Ripken Sr. remains at home in Aberdeen. He hasn't ruled out a return to baseball, but he will take a year to decide what he wants to do.

"I talked to him before I came down," Cal Jr. said. "I think he's handling things very well. If I felt strange coming here without him, I can only imagine what he's feeling after coming to spring training for half of his life. The thing about Dad is, he's the kind of guy who is always turning it around and making you feel good. You don't really know how he feels."

The elder Ripken was fired a few weeks after he came under criticism for a coaching decision during the pivotal September -- series against the Toronto Blue Jays. His decision to hold Tim Hulett at third base on a shallow fly ball in the ninth inning set

him up for a fall, even though no one with the Orioles publicly second-guessed him afterward.

"From an emotional standpoint, I guess it might be easy to think the pennant race came down to that play," Ripken said. "It's easy to sit in the stands or sit someplace else and say so after the fact, but you have to look at the situation. I can look back at the whole season and I can't find two decisions he made at third that were wrong."

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