In 15th camp, Ripken says he's far exceeded 1st hopes


March 23, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- This is his 15th spring training camp, and it has been almost that many years since he signed his first professional contract (June 13, 1978), but Cal Ripken says he never had a clue it would come to this.

He has progressed from a 6-foot-2, 180-pound prospect to a 6-4, 220-pound superstar who is virtually assured of entering the Hall of Fame at the earliest opportunity. He wears his reputation with a combination of pride and awe.

"It makes you feel good that some people feel that way," Ripken said during a break in the Orioles' preparation for the 1993 season. "It's very flattering, but I look at it with a lot of skepticism.

"I'm proud of what I've accomplished and the success I've had. There have been a lot of good moments. But there's no way that I would have thought I would have developed the way I have. It is far beyond my hopes."

Ripken said he can remember his first days in baseball as though they took place last week.

"In those days, I hoped to be good enough to eventually make the big leagues," he said. "But the fears outweighed the hopes at least 10-to-1.

"The numbers alone tell you that the odds are so much against you. I can remember taking ground balls my first day in Bluefield [W.Va., home of the Orioles' Rookie League team].

"Bobby Bonner had come out of Texas A&M, and his skills were much greater than mine. I watched him and thought to myself, 'God, I'm never going to play.' But, a couple of days later, they sent him up to Double-A."

At the time, Ripken was two months shy of his 18th birthday. He was as impressionable as any other kid trying to live a dream the odds say is impossible.

But he quickly established himself as the best prospect in the club's minor-league system. Within three years, he was in the first of his 13 big-league spring training camps, the next season he was Rookie of the Year and the following year he was the Most Valuable Player and began his current run of 10 straight All-Star appearances.

The peaks far have outnumbered the valleys -- but there have been down periods along the way. The first came during his first exposure to the big leagues late in 1981, when he hit only .128 in 23 games.

The most recent came last winter, when his father, Cal Sr., was dropped from the team's coaching staff, and his brother, Bill, his double-play partner for most of the past six years, was released. The moves came within four months of his signing a five-year, $30 million contract that seemed to ensure that the family that played together would stay together.

Ripken said he doesn't agree with the moves, but they don't cause him to second-guess his decision to sign a new contract last August, rather than wait to test the free-agent market during the off-season.

"Regrets?" he said, repeating the question. "No. Because when you make a decision, you do it based on the needs of your individual family. I guess that means you've grown up.

"Everybody always wanted to tie my dad, Bill and me together," said Ripken. "But we all have to make decisions based on individual needs. Dad has to make his decisions, Bill has to make his decisions, and I have to make my decisions.

"It was a decision [to sign a new contract] I had to make -- and only I could make it. No, I don't have any regrets."

Some regrets

He does, however, admit to regrets about the sequence of events in 1992.

"There was never a moment [during last season] when I doubted my skill levels," he said. "But there were outside things [the contract negotiations] that I could've controlled differently, but I didn't.

"There was a lot I didn't like about last year. I didn't like the way I handled some things -- but I have to take the mistakes and see what I can make them do [positively] for me. I allowed the negotiations to go into the season because I don't believe in deadlines. I didn't think it would affect my play -- and because I had made the decision I wanted to stay.

"If I had it to do over again, I'd probably say if you want to do it [a new contract], let's get it done now [before the season] or call it off, without any hard feelings, until after the season. I chose not to do that because I thought I could handle it."

The influence of the "other" side of the game is the major difference that Ripken notices about the changing face of baseball.

"Sometimes, the business side of the game rears its ugly head," he said when asked if the game was still fun. "If you're able to get all of that stuff out of your head, the game is still a lot of fun.

"When I first came, the game was much more a sport. You didn't have television coverage of every game like you do today. Now, because of all the coverage, it's more a form of entertainment. You just have to accept it as a part of the change of the game."

In some ways, this coming season is similar to Ripken's first full year in the big leagues. Then, he was coming off that brief, .128 introduction to big-league pitching. Now, he's coming off the poorest offensive year of his career.

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