Well-schooled in mechanics

Fred Ripken: Cal's "other brother" chose motorcycles over baseball, but he has returned to the diamond -- as his daughter's softball coach.

July 07, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Meet Fred Ripken, Cal's "other" brother, a.k.a. The One Who Got Away.

Cal is bound for Cooperstown. Brother Bill spent 10 years in the majors. Both played for their father, the late Cal Sr., when he managed the Orioles in 1987.

Then there is Fred, the middle sibling, the maverick who quit baseball in high school to tinker with motorcycles.

If Cal is The Iron Man, then Fred is made of chrome. Those who saw him play ball say Fred had the tools, had he not chosen pliers and wrenches instead.

A mechanic, he settled in his native Harford County, opened a cycle shop and raised a family.

But the prodigal son has returned to the diamond. At 37, Fred Ripken has found his niche on the field -- as manager of a softball team.

His daughter, Austyn, plays for the Havre de Grace Junior (13-14 year-old) All-Stars, who meet Chesapeake City at 6.30 p.m. on Friday in the District V Tournament at the Perryville Town Hall Field.

Ripken calls his team "the best I've seen here. If these girls play like they're capable, they can kick butt."

He also says the club is a melange of 13 adolescent personalities to whom practice is sometimes a social event.

"Watching them is a riot," he says. "One day they make silly mistakes; the next, they play like they've been out there for a million years.

"I could drill these knuckleheads for hours, but they wouldn't have fun -- and keeping it fun is important."

His players call Ripken "Mr. Fred." He's the Ripken they seek for advice, not autographs.

"I wouldn't want to play for anyone but Mr. Fred," says Elizabeth Larke, 13. "He's helped me improve my batting, like, if a pitcher is fast, back up [in the box]. And he's always saying stuff like, `If you practice the wrong way, you'll do it the wrong way.'

"He just knows what he's talking about."

The baseball lore, Ripken soaked up early on, during endless summers in backwater towns where his father managed Orioles farm teams.

Nearing middle age, Ripken boasts his father's steel-blue eyes, wiry build and tide's-out hairline.

He ferries players about in the Chevy pickup that belonged to Cal Sr., who died of cancer in March.

"When Fred coaches third base, you'd swear from his mannerisms that it's Cal Sr. down there," says Jim Allingham, president of the Havre de Grace Little League. "It's eerie, the way he waves runners home. He's a carbon copy of his father."

The knowledge Ripken imparts on the field hankers back to his roots.

He hits fungoes at Stancill Park, drilling his team in "The Ripken Way" and instructing on the fly. The wisdom leaves his lips as fast as the balls leap off his bat:

"Hold your ground, April, don't get out of the way of the ball C'mon girls, the other team's not gonna hit `em right to you Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect Uh-oh, Meghan, did you take that one off the head? Hey, the ball only weighs five and three-quarters ounces, how much can it hurt?"

Austyn Ripken, 13, says, "Playing for my dad is a challenge. He's harder on me than on some others. With my name, people expect me to be the best."

A catcher like her grandfather, Austyn wears No. 7 in his honor.

This season, a photograph of Cal Sr. hung over the outfield fence, 200 feet from home plate.

No home runs cleared that fence, but two flies caromed off it. Cal's granddaughter hit both.

His father's storied no-nonsense approach underlies Fred Ripken's admonitions as he readies his team for the playoffs.

Batter (fouling off a pitch): "Ouch!"

Ripken: "Ouch? Ouch? Quit swinging like a sissy and it won't hurt."

Fielder: "I'm tired."

Ripken: "From what? Waving at the ball?"

Then his face breaks into a cockeyed grin.

He quit baseball, in part, out of boredom, says Ripken, who tries to keep practice lively. When it rains, watch the manager slide in the mud.

"If the girls like me, it's because I'm a big kid," he says. "They never know what's coming next."

Ripken has been known to stand on home plate and dare players to hit him from the mound.

"I've seen balls bounce off Fred, only to have him stick out his chest again and say, `You can throw harder than that,' " says Allingham.

"He's always striving to push girls to a higher level, but not in a demanding manner. Fred has this gentle way of having them develop at their own pace, yet accelerated a little bit."

Last month, Ripken surprised his club with an Orioles game -- chauffeured limousines, box seats, the works.

When the players walked onto the field at Oriole Park to meet Cal Jr., five of them burst into tears.

"I can't understand that," Fred Ripken says. "I mean, what's the big deal? He's just family."

Says Heather Kingsley, 13, "It's great, playing for someone whose brother is famous." More important, she says, "Mr. Fred cares about us. Girls don't like to be pressured a lot, and with him there's no tension, no stress. Screw up and he just says, `We'll do better next time.'

"He's the funnest coach a girl could have."

Pub Date: 7/07/99

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