Dad, not game, drew Ripken to ballpark Baseball got Junior together with Senior

April 25, 1993|By John Feinstein

'PLAY BALL'

Sportswriter John Feinstein spent the 1992 season examining the game of baseball from the inside, much of it at Camden Yards. Today through Tuesday, The Sun will run excerpts from Feinstein's book, "Play Ball."

* Tomorrow: The Tim Hulett tragedy.

* Tuesday: Cal Ripken's salary negotiations.

To everyone in the Baltimore organization, he was never "Cal," only "Junior," just as his father, the third-base coach, was always "Senior." Junior was entering the final year of a contract that paid him a relatively paltry $2.1 million a year. During the winter, his agent, Ron Shapiro, and Orioles president Larry Lucchino had begun the mating dance that would ultimately decide Ripken's future. Almost no one believed he would leave Baltimore or that ** the Orioles would let him leave. The estimates on what Ripken would be paid ranged from as low as $5 million a year to as high as $8 million.

In other words, Ripken only had to wonder, as former Oakland pitcher Mike Norris had once put it, walking into an arbitration hearing, whether he was going to be "rich or richer."

Money really wasn't Ripken's concern, though. After all, if he ended up at the low end of the projected scale, he was going to have enough to buy several countries. As with most players, baseball had never been about money for Ripken. Most of the time, baseball had been about his father.

Cal Ripken Sr. looks as if he has just stepped out of a casting call for the grizzled old coach in any baseball movie ever made. His skin is tanned and wrinkled from years in the sun, and he looks a good deal older than 56. Stories about his toughness and stubbornness are legendary.

Once, the Ripkens' garden was being destroyed by a gopher, who showed up every night and burrowed away until daylight. The only way to catch the gopher was to wait up all night for it. Senior did, shotgun in hand, and blew the little critter away when it made the mistake of showing up once too often. On another memorable occasion, Senior got a serious cut while plowing snow out of the front yard. But he wouldn't go to the hospital until he'd finished the damn plowing. He tied a bandanna around his forehead to stem the flow of blood, finished the job, and then went to have the gash attended to.

Senior signed with the Orioles in 1957 as a catcher, and played six years in the minor leagues, finishing with a career batting average of .253. In 1961, he became a player-manager at Class-D Leesburg, Fla., and spent the next 14 seasons managing different teams in the Baltimore system.

Junior has an older sister and two younger brothers. When he was very young, he had only a vague idea that his father was associated with the local baseball team in places like Elmira, N.Y., Rochester, N.Y., Dallas-Fort Worth and Asheville, N.C.

"At first, it was kind of fun," he said, sipping a cup of coffee on a cool Florida morning. "It made you feel special. But, after a while, I came to resent it because it was taking my father away from me. By the time I was playing Little League, it seemed like my dad was never around. My mom was the one who came to all my games because Dad was always on the road. That feeling of being left alone is something I think about a lot in terms of my own children."

The way the Ripken story is told, Junior learned baseball by hanging out at clinics with Senior and around the ballclubs he was managing. But, according to the son, it wasn't the game that drew him to the ballpark, it was his father.

"My brother Fred [a year younger] was always very mechanical. That's where he and Dad connected. They would work on things around the house together. I had baseball. I can remember my father coming into my room very early in the moring and saying, 'You want to go to the park with me for the clinic?' Well, the answer was no. I actually thought the clinics were kind of boring.

"But the time in the car going to the park and then coming back was my only chance to be alone with him and really talk to him. I went to the clinics for the 20 minutes in the car with my dad. That was all I really cared about. I just picked up the baseball because I was sitting there with nothing else to do but listen."

Whether by osmosis or otherwise, Junior learned to play. And how to ask questions. By the time he was 12, his father was managing in Double-A. Every day, Junior would test the players, asking them questions about how to do something on the baseball field. He would take their answers back to his father. If his father said a player's answers were right, Junior went back for more. If he said they were wrong, that player was scratched from the list for not taking the youngster's questions seriously.

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