Carrying on the Ripken Way

Cal Ripken Jr. grieves for the father who taught him so much, but he's a very different kind of dad from Cal Sr.

June 20, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN COLUMNIST

On the day his son and most accomplished student broke baseball's record for consecutive games played, Cal Ripken Sr. stood and applauded in a skybox high above the diamond at Camden Yards.

Down on the field, Cal Ripken Jr. placed his hand over his heart in unspoken affection for the fans. When he raised his eyes, moist with tears, he saw his father offer him a simple thumbs-up sign.

On that momentous day four summers ago, those gestures were an unspoken discourse on this father and son. So alike as baseball men that Junior could have leapt fully formed from the mind of Senior. Yet away from the game, so different as people, as fathers.

"Those kinds of emotions are so powerful, no matter how they are given," Ripken says now, speaking softly as he recalls his taciturn father. "For my dad, it was a handshake and a touch on the back. But I knew what it meant. I knew it was my dad. I knew he loved me."

Today Ripken celebrates Father's Day without his father. Cal Sr. died this spring after a brief, brutal battle with lung cancer. And the man who achieved baseball immortality through practice, preparation and attention to detail now finds himself somewhat adrift on an undisciplined field of grief, ambushed by memories of his father in every ballpark in which he plays.

"There are reminders all the time," he says. "You never know when they are going to pop up. They're not all bad. Some of them are happy. But they have me going up and down.

"The bases are loaded with two outs. The catcher goes to the mound to talk to the pitcher, and the umpire says to me, 'I'm sorry about your dad.' I say, 'Thanks,' but I am thinking, 'Not now!' "

Ripken is almost 39, ancient in baseball years, and his contract expires at the end of this season. Soon after his father's death, injury forced him out of the game for the first time in his career, and he spent 22 games in the equally unfamiliar territory of the disabled list.

"I've always felt mortal," Ripken says. "It is strange how people refer to me within the sport.

"But the injury was a blessing in disguise. During the process of healing physically, I had a chance to heal mentally. It gave me time to deal with it personally."

Over the course of a few hours recently, Ripken, his wife, Kelly, and their young daughter talked about Ripken's other job, his other streak. For nearly 10 years now, he has been Cal Ripken, father -- of Rachel, age 9, and Ryan, age 6.

It is another job for which he must show up every day.

"I am very sensitive to the separation I experienced with my dad," Ripken says. It is a statement he repeats several times in a subdued, thoughtful conversation.

"Whatever I do in my next life has to be flexible. It is important for me to be there for Rachel's theater and Ryan's games. And to be there for the day-to-day stuff. That's the way it is with kids.

"You just have to be there."

That, too, is a lesson he learned from his often-absent father, whose long minor-league coaching career took him away from his wife, Vi, and the four Ripken children.

But the game that separated them would bring father and son together again. Cal Sr. was the teacher who instilled in his oldest son and namesake the precise discipline that helped him play just short of 15 uninterrupted seasons of major league baseball.

And he was Ripken's coach, manager and traveling companion for 11 years with the Orioles, until he was retired by the team in 1992.

"I feel a little alone," says Ripken. "You rely on your parents to be there as your safety net. As you get older, you need less and less from them. But you want to be around them because they are your parents. There is an emptiness now. A loss."

The death of their grandfather and the sudden presence of their father during baseball season this spring rattled the routine of two other baseball children: Rachel and Ryan.

"There was sadness in the house. The injury made things unstable," Ripken says. "When I left, they were afraid I might not come back. We had to work through that.

"Their security blanket got ruffled a little bit," he says. "It was up to me to straighten it out."

If you ask her, Kelly Ripken will say she has three children -- and that the tall, graying one is the most incorrigible.

"Typical male," says Cal Ripken's wife of 12 years. "He skates in and says, 'Hey I'm home,' and disrupts everything. I tell him, 'Hey, I have a system here and it's working.' I guess I want him to fall right into what I have already set up."

But Kelly says her much-traveled husband hears the ticking of the clock each day of their children's lives. She hears it too.

"I see it as he does," she says, "that you can't make up for lost time. If you miss the moment, you miss the moment. You can't make it up three months later. But you can make the most of it when you are here."

"I have an advantage my father didn't have," Ripken says. "I had kids later [in life] and I have more resources. But I want to make sure in my next life I have the flexibility to be there for my kids.

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