The lone Ripken is still at home

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 26, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, Fla. -- As usual, Cal Ripken said all the right things. He said it hurt not having his father and brother at spring training. He said he felt lost without them in his first workout. And he said he was a professional who will carry on.

So, what did you expect? Ripken is a born trooper. He isn't thrilled the Orioles released his brother, Bill, and fired his father, Cal Sr. But he also isn't going to make his innermost feelings public or, heaven forbid, let them affect his play.

The Orioles knew this when they broke up the family within four months after Ripken signed his five-year, $30.5 million contract last August. Heck, they knew it almost from the moment they drafted the tall, skinny kid from Aberdeen in 1978.

Why, then, didn't they do their dirty work sooner? Ripken signed a three-year contract three months after his father was fired as manager in 1988. Did he change that much in the ensuing four years? Would he have left as a free agent simply to protect his family's honor?

"I don't think that's the way Junior works," Bill said last spring, and there was no reason, then or now, to believe otherwise. As Ripken said yesterday, "I had to look at my contract situation for myself and my immediate family." Plain and simple, he wanted to stay with his hometown team.

No one is above reproach in this unfortunate saga -- not Bill, not Cal Sr., and not a front office that allowed itself to be paralyzed by groundless fears. But rest assured, Ripken will overcome his emotions, embrace his new double-play partner and continue blazing his path to the Hall of Fame.

Even now, he won't allow himself to think the worst -- that the club made sure he was under contract before purging his brother and father. "If that's exactly what happened, if all those things were connected, I'd really be disgusted," Ripken said. "But there's no way for me to know that."

Fair enough, but like the rest of us, Ripken surely smells a rat. Still, disgusted as he might be, he knows it's not his place to criticize a front office that just showered him with millions. The front office made the right moves, but at the wrong time. Maybe he even knows that.

The family chemistry was special, but with all three Ripkens, the team chemistry was not. Cal Sr., the third-base coach, remained bitter at the club officials who fired him as manager. Bill, the second baseman, was popular in the clubhouse, but manager Johnny Oates said he could not accept a backup role.

Something is wrong when a player hits .216 and .230 in back-to-back seasons and can't understand why the club might want to replace him, but enough rehash. The Ripkens achieved a unique place in baseball history when the father managed his two sons. That, ultimately, is what should be remembered.

"If you put it all in perspective, it seems like we beat the odds," Ripken Jr. said. "The thing I'm most thankful for is that I was brought up in a family where baseball separated you. It took my dad away. But baseball reunited us. All of a sudden, from a social standpoint, I could see them.

"Your dad was there when you needed him. Your brother was there when you needed him. Looking back, it's a positive. It's strange right now, and there's a feeling of hurt. But I'll always look back on it as special. It will become more special without them."

And slowly, he will become more comfortable with this next chapter of his career. The new second baseman, Harold Reynolds, sat next to him on the flight down from Baltimore. Oates stood with him in the outfield for 30 minutes yesterday, giving him a sympathetic ear.

Like many players, Reynolds greatly admires Ripken, and as one of eight children, he understands the affection between brothers. "We've talked about it," Reynolds said. "I don't think it's a personal thing. It could have been Lou Whitaker or anybody. He understands that. I don't see any problems."

If anything, Reynolds will face greater resistance from Orioles fans who didn't want their hometown fairy tale to end. "It might put some undue pressure on me that I've never dealt with, but I'm not going to worry about it," he said. "Sometimes, when we let our minds wander, the myth becomes bigger than the person. That might be the case here."

No, that's precisely the case here. Because the Orioles held the family to a different standard, so did everyone else. It was an unavoidable phenomenon, and it came to an unavoidable end. Cal Jr. is the Eternal Ripken. The only difference now is he's alone.

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