Mind, body team up to send injuries going, going, gone

September 07, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Wally Joyner had stepped on Cal Ripken's fielder's glove scrambling to get back to the second base bag. Ripken's exposed right index finger also was in the way.

The day after that July 13 game this season, Ripken showed off the 2 1/2 -inch tear in the back of the glove. His finger was unscathed.

The finger, not the glove, is an indicator of how Ripken has been able to play in 2,131 consecutive games. Like many other major-leaguers, he's a big, strong, mentally tough and well-conditioned athlete.

Ripken is a physiological marvel in one respect -- he's an incredibly fast healer. So fast that an injury, such as a first-inning spike mark on his finger, will disappear by the end of the game.

Orioles head trainer Richie Bancells has seen Ripken's injuries mysteriously fade away so many times that the phenomenon no longer fazes him. Bancells swears it's true.

"He would get hit by a pitch early in the game, and you'd see a contusion," Bancells said. "You go over after the game, you'd look at it and the contusion was gone. I know that sounds a little superman-ish."

Ripken, contrary to popular belief, is not superman. He's the son of Cal Ripken Sr., another tough cuss with amazing recuperative powers. Ripken Jr. understands he is the beneficiary of good genes.

"I think, genetically, I've been dealt a pretty good hand," Ripken said. "My dad has been someone that was always a quick healer. If he got hit with a line drive or banged himself up a little bit, the next day it would be hard to tell anything was wrong with him."

Cal Sr. is responsible for more than just his son's genetic gifts. He instilled in him the importance of doing things the right way, especially on the baseball diamond.

From his father, Ripken learned the fundamentals of baseball that often have helped him avoid serious injury, even at a physically demanding position such as shortstop.

Ripken does the little things right -- his feet are always in the proper position, he flips the ball to first base to reduce the strain on his arm and is rarely involved in collisions while turning double plays. Little things that, said team doctors and trainers, help him stay out of harm's way.

"The main thing is that his fundamentals are so good in the field that it keeps him out of dangerous positions," team doctor Michael Jacobs said. "He's always fielding so smoothly that he tends not to incur some of the twists and strains that other guys do. It also doesn't hurt that he's huge."

Ripken is 6 feet 4, 220 pounds -- 6 inches taller than his father. He was a shorter, skinnier minor-league shortstop when Bancells, then a first-year trainer, met him at rookie ball in Bluefield, W.Va.

"His first year was my first year," Bancells said.

Bancells jumped ahead of Ripken to Triple-A Rochester, but Ripken beat him to the majors by three seasons. They've been together with the Orioles for 12 seasons. Bancells knows Ripken's training habits better than anyone else.

"He never needs to get in shape because he's never out of shape," Bancells said.

Bancells said reporters are always asking him to go into detail about Ripken's conditioning program. "They're always looking for a magic determinant, or magic ointment or magic potion," he said. "If anything, he doesn't do anything too extreme."

Ripken's off-season conditioning is described as a "total body fitness program that has a basketball angle to it." He plays basketball five to six times a week, but the rest of the workout, said Bancells, "is no different than the workouts the other guys get."

Blessed with a strong body, Ripken has an even stronger mind.

Bancells said Ripken has a "high pain threshold." Ripken's mental approach is revealed when he starts discussing his nagging injuries, drifting into the second person as if they happened to somebody else.

"Your knee, your ankle, sliding into second base to break up the double play, you might . . . I hyper-extended my elbow a little bit," Ripken said. "All those injuries you can continue to play with. It's just a tolerance for pain, knowing that it's going to be OK and you'll get over it."

It's more than a tolerance for pain. Ripken responds to injuries by elevating his level of concentration. When he hyper-extended his elbow one year in Seattle, it hurt when he swung the bat in the on-deck circle but not when he made contact at the plate. He rarely swung and missed.

"All of a sudden I went on one of the hottest streaks in my career because I just stayed within myself and just made sure that when I swung the bat, I made contact," Ripken said.

Bancells marvels at Ripken when he comes into the training room with an injury. "He says, 'Do what you can do with it, then let's go,' " Bancells said. "That's the psychology that comes into play as the game gets closer."

Ripken's psychology and reputation as a quick healer helped him play through The Streak's two closest calls.

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