Cal Ripken Sr. cool after winter of his discontent

March 07, 1993|By John F. Steadman | John F. Steadman,Staff Writer

All those spring trainings and suddenly Cal Ripken Sr. isn't carrying a clipboard that outlines the plan of the day, nor is he swinging a fungo bat with the deftness of a baton. For 37 years he was in a baseball environment. Always a Baltimore Oriole.

Now it's different. He's home while the Orioles are at play. But there are no symptoms of withdrawal or expressions of resentment. "At this stage, I know I'm not missing anything," he says in the direct matter-of-fact manner that has been the Ripken way.

His wife, Vi, realizes what an unusual occurrence it is to have him around the house in early March, when teams are in camp preparing for the season and he's not with them. "It's different but wonderful for both of us," she said. "I know him better than anyone. He's holding up fine. He's not yearning to be in Florida even though it's a time of the year he always used to be there."

In the comfort of the Ripken living room in Aberdeen, he talked openly of his firing -- not retirement -- from the Orioles and offered a myriad of reminiscences, pleasant and informative.

Ripken, 57, has spent more than half of his life working for an organization in every aspect of on-the-field baseball. His contributions stand as a glorious record of devotion to duty. In the end, though, he gathered the distinct impression he was being moved to another job to satisfy the whims of management.

On Oct. 15, he was called to a meeting that included general manager Roland Hemond, assistant general manager Frank Robinson and manager Johnny Oates.

"Roland told me we have to move some people along [ostensibly to open opportunities for younger coaches]," Ripken said. "He said he wanted me to coordinate the minor-league camp and also I'd probably spend some time with the major-league club.

"I listened and asked him, 'Before you go flowering up that job, tell me why I'm not staying here.' He said again because 'we have to move some people along.' I asked him when he wanted an answer. He mentioned three or four days. I thought it out,

reviewed it and called back and told him I couldn't accept the proposal. They announced I retired. I didn't retire."

There was a charge made that he had grown distant from the players last season. "That's wrong," he said. "The players never stopped coming to me asking for help. The biggest laugh I got was when I read in some newspaper that I sat in the back row of the bus to get away from everybody. Know why I sat there? So I could smoke cigarettes."

There also was speculation that a decision by Ripken, while coaching third base, might have contributed to his termination.

In the opening game of a big series against the Toronto Blue Jays in late September, he held up Tim Hulett in the ninth inning with what could have been the tying run.

"I can't believe that had anything to do with it," he said. "If you have any understanding of how baseball is played, you realize a coach never wants a tying run thrown out at home plate. The ball wasn't hit that deep, and Tim Hulett is not a good runner. We had Mike Devereaux at the plate, and we have a chance to tie or even win the game. You don't take a high-risk chance at that point."

Ultimately, Ripken was removed as a coach. It ended a career that had started when he was a 21-year-old catcher, who soon became a craftsman at the position, even though a shoulder injury prevented him from getting a major-league opportunity. He had been a player, minor-league manager, major-league coach and for a season, plus six games in 1988, manager of the Orioles.

Ripken remembered his first contract for $150 per month; the late scout, John "Poke" Whalen, didn't have a pen so he borrowed one from a spectator so he could sign.

"It was over on Lee Field or what some of us in Aberdeen called Canners Field," he said. "At Phoenix, my manager was Bob Hooper, who also pitched. He was a great teacher and threw the best stiff-wrist slider I ever saw. Bob used so much resin that after a game when I'd congratulate him, our hands would stick together."

Playing that rookie season at Phoenix, in the Arizona-Mexico League, meant the team made a road trip to Cananea, Mexico, where games were held in a bull ring that didn't have a blade of grass.

"The heat had to be 130 or 140 degrees," Ripken said. "When I was warming up a pitcher, I'd dig a hole to bury both my feet and then insulate them by pushing the sand over my shoes."

He was aware during the mid-1950s that the Orioles organization was beginning to stabilize and make progress. But he also knew that manager-general manager Paul Richards and farm director Jim McLaughlin rarely spoke. It was a house divided, but success couldn't be denied because both men were proficient in their areas of responsibility.

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