In face of cancer, Ripken Sr. shows character

February 28, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

No man has meant more to a baseball organization than Cal Ripken Sr., a throwback to another era who sacrificed personal opportunities to labor in the vineyards and do more for the Orioles than they could ever do for him.

He brought discipline, a no-nonsense instructional ethic and a working wisdom that prepared players for the demanding major-league examinations that awaited. He asked no plaudits; he derived satisfaction from the results of his coaching and personal example.

Now Cal Sr. is competing against a foe that deals in hard stuff. Cancer. And as with every other crisis confronting him, he addresses the problem in a mature, matter-of-fact, non-complaining way. The character of a winner.

Ripken has given more to the Orioles than any player, manager or executive in the franchise's 45-year history. He also helped give life to two sons who lifted the Ripken name to major-league stature, one a hero who will be remembered by his deeds for as long as baseball is played. That's a mere supporting detail to how the Ripkens, with loyalty to each other, rally to the cause when trouble arises.

To observe the devotion of the Ripken family, wife Vi, daughter Elly and sons Cal Jr., Bill and Fred, plus Cal Sr.'s older brothers Oliver and Bill, toward their stern leader is rewarding. They engulf him, this toughest of old Orioles, with affection and encouragement.

Ripken was identified with the Orioles for seven years as a player, 14 as a minor-league manager, 12 as a coach, and a season and six games after he finally got a chance to manage at the major-league level. His organizational longevity is unchallenged within the entire realm of the Orioles.

The first contract he signed as a player was in 1957, when the scout who visited him, John "Poke" Whelan, didn't have a pen. So they borrowed one on that Aberdeen field, and he agreed to $150 a month to play for the Orioles' Phoenix farm team in the Class C Arizona-Mexico League.

Ah, yes, the unforgettable games in Cananea, Mexico, where so much dust from the dirt roads came through the bus's floor boards that players doubled their handkerchiefs around their faces -- giving them the appearance of a team of bandits rather than ballplayers.

Games in Cananea, played in a grassless bull ring, often found temperatures reaching 120 degrees and, for Ripken, it felt as if his spikes were being fired by a bed of red-hot coals. So he'd dig holes behind home plate, deep enough to cover his shoes and insulate his feet from the heat.

He was to spend seven years as a catcher in the system. His ability to receive the ball and to dictate strategy offered hope that he would someday make the majors as at least a backup catcher.

Twice foul tips hit the point of his right shoulder, which the chest protector didn't cover, damaging his throwing arm.

He was in Leesburg, Fla., in 1961 as a first-year manager when the Rochester Red Wings called. They asked him to drive all night to Richmond, because they were in dire need of an emergency catcher. He arrived to learn, minus sleep, that he would have to catch a doubleheader. A company man, on call -- whatever the situation, he could handle it.

In 14 years of managing in the minors, he had only two losing seasons, handling players such as Jim Palmer, Mark Belanger, Andy Etchebarren, Eddie Murray and Lou Piniella.

When the Orioles were trying to establish a training camp for minor-league clubs at Biscayne (Fla.) College, the man putting down the plumb lines, riding the tractor, and cutting in the fields was Cal Ripken Sr., a manager who allowed the Orioles to save money by not having to hire a construction gang. Typical Ripken.

Whatever the Orioles wanted, he produced, everything from skying pop-ups to catchers to climbing under the team bus and repairing a sprocket during a road trip at 3 a.m.

When he finally got a chance to manage the Orioles, there was never a more jubilant man. And a wife, too. All those years of self-sacrifice, putting up with the inconveniences of the minors seemed worth the wait. But Ripken got a fast shuffle from Edward Bennett Williams, the often-ruthless man who then owned the franchise.

The understanding was the Orioles were going to retool with farm-system products. But Williams, impulsive and self-centered, contradicted himself six games into the 1988 season, and Ripken was history. So much for rebuilding from within.

"What happened to Cal was one of the worst things that ever happened to a manager with any club," recalls Boog Powell. "He would have been at his best developing a young team. But the owner went back on his word, and the Orioles hurt themselves."

It was once tradition in Harford County for friends and neighbors of the Ripkens, headed by Jim McMahon, to stage a banquet before training camp. Cal Sr., Cal Jr., and Bill were the guests of honor.

Circulating the entire room, stopping at every table and making a point to personally thank each person in attendance was one of the guests of honor, father Ripken himself.

Two years ago, a high school pitcher asked if Ripken would check his delivery before he went off to college. Cal didn't know the boy or his father but arranged to meet them at a field in Aberdeen. He warmed up the youngster and offered suggestions but told him something about himself that he didn't believe anyone knew.

"You have a sore arm, son," he said. Just another gesture toward a baseball player, a kid he didn't know but still wanted to help.

The good represented by Cal Ripken Sr., what he has given to baseball and to the Orioles, could never be measured in words. He stands alone, singularly, as a symbol of devotion to a team and what it means to have men like him believing in a cause.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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