Taking side trip down Ripken memory lane

April 12, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY, MO. — KANSAS CITY, Mo.-- Six members of the Orioles' 1983 world championship team were at Kauffman Stadium last night, working as coaches, broadcasters, even volunteer batting-practice pitchers.

Cal Ripken is the only member of that team still active, and the memories flowed freely before he moved within five hits of 3,000 with a second-inning home run against Kansas City.

Memories of Ripken as a skinny youngster. Memories of his early struggles. Memories of his first signs of greatness, and his father's powerful influence.

"The first time I saw him, he was catching batting practice in Asheville, N.C., in 1974," said former Orioles second baseman Rich Dauer, now a third base coach for the Kansas City Royals.

"He was 13 years old, 6 feet tall, with curly hair. His dad was throwing batting practice. He was catching it. [Ripken's brother] Billy was the clubhouse kid. [Ripken's sister] Ellen was the base sweeper.

"I had no idea who he was. I thought he was a player."

Former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan caught his first glimpse of Ripken a few years later. Cal Ripken Sr., was the Orioles' third base coach. Junior was a pitcher and shortstop at Aberdeen High School.

"I remember seeing him come to the ballpark to take batting practice," said Flanagan, now a broadcaster for Home Team Sports. "The next time I saw him -- it must have been two years later [after Ripken signed with the Orioles] -- it seemed like he was a different kid. He was like 5 inches taller, and 20 to 30 pounds heavier.

"You looked at his dad, and figured he wasn't going to be that big. When he came back, it was a shock how big he had gotten, how strong. I almost didn't recognize him."

Former Orioles pitcher Mike Boddicker also had trouble identifying Ripken at the start, but for different reasons. The first time he met Ripken in Bluefield, W.Va., he figured his new teammate might be a future Cy Young Award winner.

"Hell of a pitcher," said Boddicker, who now throws batting practice for the Royals part time. "In Rookie ball, we lived in the same house. The first time I saw him was on the hill. He was throwing on the side. He also took some balls at shortstop. But he was little, real skinny. I didn't think he was a shortstop. I assumed he was a pitcher. He had the best stuff of any guy down there."

That was 22 years ago.

Before Ripken converted from third base to shortstop. Before he became the American League Rookie of the Year and a two-time Most Valuable Player. Before he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

Any day now, he will become only the seventh player in major-league history to reach 400 homers and 3,000 hits, but remember how it all started? Ripken was 7-for-60 on May 1 of his rookie year. At that point, his major-league average over two seasons was .121.

"Failure was not in his jargon. It was not part of his game," Dauer said. "When he came up and started slowly, I remember him sitting in the clubhouse one day, very upset, crying. But you have to smell failure and have the fear of it to be a successful player. He never rested on any of his laurels. He always worked hard."

The day after Ripken sank to 7-for-60, he finally managed two hits -- and was promptly beaned by fellow rookie Mike Moore. He missed only one game and began his consecutive-games streak four weeks later. After the beaning, he batted .281 to the end of the season.

"I don't know when it was exactly, but there was an at-bat he had against Tom Seaver in Chicago," Flanagan said. "It was one of those things that really stuck in my mind, like Eddie [Murray] the first time he faced [Nolan] Ryan.

"Seaver threw the kitchen sink at him. It was a great at-bat. Cal fouled off a number of pitches, and ended up hitting a home run. I thought, `That was special. This is going to be special.' "

Boddicker got the same feeling in '83, when Ripken led the majors with 211 hits, a club record that still stands. No Hall of Fame shortstop has ever had that many hits in a season, though the total has since been exceeded twice by Alex Rodriguez and once by Derek Jeter.

"I remember [Al] Bumbry screaming at one pitcher, `Throw him a hook! Throw him a hook!' " Boddicker recalled. "I can't remember who it was. But the pitcher threw him a pretty good breaking ball, and Cal hammered it over the left-center-field bullpen at Memorial Stadium. It was a tough pitch. But he hammered it like it was nothing."

And now here's Ripken, all these years later, closing in on 3,000.

Elrod Hendricks is the Orioles' bullpen coach, just as he was in '83. Eddie Murray, the runner-up to Ripken for AL MVP that season, is another Orioles coach. Terry Crowley, a teammate of Ripken's in '81 and '82, is the team's hitting instructor.

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