Baseball's signature player When Cal Ripken Jr. takes the field to give out autographs, it's the fans who get a signing bonus.

September 28, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

The signature itself does not dazzle you.

The C in Cal is more of a slash than a semi-circle. The six letters in Ripken run together in a jumble of jagged up-and-down strokes, like something your doctor just scribbled on a prescription pad. A big, looping J on Jr. is the flashiest touch, but flashy the way putting a bow on a wicker basket is flashy.

It doesn't look like much, and yet to a lot of people, it's pretty much everything. To get Cal Ripken's autograph, they line up in stadiums all across the country like people flocking to a shrine: respectful, but with a sense of urgency.

Or else they stake out the Orioles' hotel on the road, like some junior-varsity private detectives. Or they jump in cars and follow him to airports. Or they materialize at his side in restaurants when he has a forkful of pasta in his mouth and three loose strands dangling across his chin, which, let's face it, is exactly when you want to be signing: "To Becky, best of luck, Cal Ripken Jr." on a cocktail napkin.

Once, a guy jumped out from behind the ice machine as Ripken made his way to his hotel room. Surprised the hell out of him. You pass an ice machine, you're pretty much expecting to see ice, not some knucklehead with a baseball in one hand and a Flair pen in the other.

But this is life for Cal Ripken, the most famous name in baseball today and a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame -- assuming he ever stops playing long enough to get there.

When it comes to autographs, though, the game's Iron Man is the softest of soft touches.

And this has created the weird paradox that has come to rule his life: Nobody in the game signs more than Ripken. Yet nobody's signature is more in demand.

"I don't know anyone in the game who goes through what he does," says outfielder Brady Anderson, Ripken's closest friend on the Orioles.

Two years ago, during that shimmering season when he shattered Lou Gehrig's hallowed record of 2,130 consecutive games played, Ripken's post-game autograph signings at Camden Yards became legendary, often lasting until the wee hours of the morning. He estimates he signed 100,000 autographs for fans that year, and put his name on at least 50,000 other items required by his numerous contractual deals.

According to the Orioles' PR staff, the pace hasn't slowed perceptibly since.

Before batting practice one recent evening, in front of his locker in the vast, carpeted Orioles clubhouse at Camden Yards, Ripken smiled softly when the subject of autographs was raised.

"It's a play on words," he said softly, "but signing has become my signature trademark. I don't know why, but it's taken on a life of its own."

Pfiesteria takes on a life of its own, too, and pretty soon you have a dump-truck-load of dead fish on your dock and a smell that would make a flock of buzzards queasy.

But with Ripken, all this signing has become an incredibly positive experience. It isn't hard to figure out why his signature is in such demand, either: he's a perennial All-Star, humble, team player, keeps his yap shut, doesn't land in the back of a police cruiser in handcuffs with a raincoat over his head.

Plus there's the fact that he's achieved official icon status, breaking one of the most impressive records in all of sports while single-handedly helping baseball rebound from the black eye it took after the last disastrous player strike.

Then there is this: Ripken doesn't mind signing.

No, that's not quite it. He enjoys signing. So, look, if it comes down to Ripken's signature or, say, the signature of sunny Albert Belle, who once fired a baseball at a fan in the stands whom he deemed a bit too mouthy, which way is the average fan going to go?

"It's a pleasant experience all around," Ripken insists. "It's an opportunity to interact, an opportunity to relate, an opportunity to be social. I don't think I'm a real social or outgoing person. But this gives me a vehicle to be that way."

Spend any time around Cal Ripken and what you discover immediately is that he's signing his name to something pretty much all the time.

He signs before home games at Camden Yards whenever he can. He signs "at least 15, 20 minutes" before most road games. He signs tons of baseball memorabilia for various merchandising companies, for which he is paid handsomely, with a lot of the money going to charity.

When the O's are on the road, for 20 to 25 minutes before and after games, he signs memorabilia for the home team's players and their families, who apparently are as star-struck around him as most fans.

"The other teams bring in sackloads of stuff for him to sign," says O's assistant public relations director Bill Stetka.

Then there are all the book signings to plug Ripken's autobiography, "The Only Way I Know," which came out in May and is selling like they stuck a $50 bill in each copy.

At a midnight signing at Border's in Towson this spring, he signed 2,300 copies of his book in three hours.

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