Ripkens catch up with ties that bind Together again: Bill Ripken has rejoined brother Cal with Orioles, and their comfort level shows no change.

March 03, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Even as kids, born four years apart, Cal and Bill Ripken played on the same team. Cal always worked it out that way.

The neighborhood gang would gather to play football or baseball or whatever the sport of choice happened to be, and Cal, possessing some athletic pre-eminence, would be picked to be captain of one team. Sometimes he bartered for his brother -- You take that guy, I'll take Billy -- and sometimes he picked him first, straight away.

But always, they played together, Cal figuring that even if Bill wasn't as big as the other, older guys or as strong or as fast, he would find a way to win. Winning is what Cal cared about, and as far as he was concerned, Bill wasn't a pesty little brother. No, Bill played hard and he found a way.

In pickup football, Cal would be quarterback and he'd run a dozen plays without so much as looking at his brother. Then they'd huddle and Cal would tell Bill to go deep, into the end zone. "It worked all the time," Bill says now, remembering. "He always timed it just perfectly, when to throw to me."

They are back together again with the Orioles, Cal Ripken preparing for his 16th season in the majors and Bill a nonroster utility man attempting to win a spot on the roster after playing three seasons for the Texas and Cleveland organizations. Their lockers are side by side in the clubhouse, a B. RIPKEN placard on the right and C. RIPKEN on the left.

They missed playing together for those three years and are enjoying immensely being on the same team again. They share common experiences and values, and a similar sense of humor. They make each other laugh.

Said Bill: "I know as much about him as a person than anybody, and he can be a little different with me than he can with everybody else. The man's funny, flat-out. . . . A lot of people don't know this, but I get a lot of material from him. I can just say what I feel like and he can't.

"I know he has an image to uphold. I think my image is pretty good at times, but I think people expect off-the-wall things from me. I may say it, and he may think it. He thinks everything through, and I shoot."

When they are together, they both fire away.

Cal said: "There's no doubt about it. People that you're more familiar with, you know them and they know you; they don't know you for an image or for your perception as a baseball player.

"You can totally let down your guard and be who you are without being judged for it or thought of any differently. I can act any way I want in front of Billy.

"Being able to do that enhances the enjoyment of being together."

They've spent a lifetime together, playing baseball or pickup football. They had Indian towel fights, covering one fist and holding the other hand behind their backs and punching away. ("Those usually ended when I had a bloody nose," Bill says.) Cal came back from the minors and they would write scripts and do satires about some of Bill's friends on audiotapes, Cal doing many of the voices. When Cal moved out of the house, Bill missed him.

Bill joined the Orioles, however, and even if they weren't playing on the same team, they were in the same organization, and there would always be the chance they'd play together. They had that connection.

Bill broke into the majors in 1987, alongside Cal, and for nearly six seasons they played together. But after the 1992 season, the Orioles cut Bill.

"The situation, maybe you didn't cherish it as much as you could've," Cal said of playing with his brother. "To have that taken away really made you look back and think, 'That was really great.'

"For a lot of reasons. I enjoyed seeing him on a daily basis. I enjoyed being able to talk to him when something was bothering me a little bit. I enjoyed being able to give him advice when he wanted me to talk to him.

"It was something that felt normal [playing together]. When you lost that, you really lost something big."

Playing without Cal, Bill says now, there was "something not quite right. I really don't have a problem making friends. In Texas, I had a group of guys I hung with regularly, and I consider them my friends to this day. But it still wasn't him; it wasn't my brother. It wasn't what I was used to.

"That could be about something on the field, something that happened during the course of the ballgame. It could be a baseball issue I could ask him about, or a personal issue."

Cal felt "really strange. I tried to accept it as quickly as possible, for him best individually. . . . Texas started hot that year, and he threw somebody out in a game-clinching situation. I kept looking over there thinking, 'I wish he was doing that for us. I wish he'd come back.' "

He has now, although their personal circumstances have changed in the interim. Cal has gone from iron man to national hero, and Bill from a regular second baseman to a utility man and the brother of a hero. But the time apart hasn't changed their relationship.

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