Not much stick, but stuck with it

Early years: The skinny, overmatched freshman infielder was in for much bigger things.

April 17, 2000|By Mike Klingaman

It's a warm spring day, just right for a game, and the second baseman's thoughts turn to baseball. Sitting in his ninth-grade class at Aberdeen High, Calvin Ripken grabs notebook paper and does some math: Hits divided by at-bats equals batting average.

Hmmmm. . . . Thirty-five into 40 goes once, carry your 5

Ripken frowns.

Hall of Fame numbers, they're not.

At 14, Cal Ripken couldn't hit a lick, batting a meager .114. First time up, against Loyola High, he struck out swinging, and remained hitless through the next six games. Underweight and overmatched, he managed just four singles in 35 trips that spring.

At that pace, in the big leagues, Ripken would ring up 3,000 hits in about 750 years.

Even a future Iron Man couldn't play that long.

Twenty-four years later, Ripken's mother, Vi, still has that sheet of lined notebook paper with its long-division doodles, tucked away with other keepsakes in the attic. But a few things have changed.

Ripken grew 10 inches. He gained 100 pounds. He got straight A's in math. He raised his game a notch or two. And Saturday, he crashed the 3,000-hit club, the 23rd major-league player to do so.

His high school teammates saw this coming, despite Ripken's horrid start at the plate.

"His freshman year upset Cal, but it was also his motivation," said Tony Canami, who played with him at Aberdeen. "Deep down, he knew he could hit and had something to prove."

Ripken's glove earned him a start, but his size (5 feet 7 and 128 pounds) betrayed him in the box. He failed to hit in his first 12 appearances, striking out five times.

"Keeping a freshman on the varsity was almost unheard of [in 1975]," said Don Morrison, then the Aberdeen's Eagles' coach. "Cal was just in awe of being there."

Game after game, Ripken struggled at bat, getting his first hit - a single to left - after nearly a month. But he never altered his swing from the textbook stance taught him by his father, Cal Sr., then an Orioles' scout.

On six occasions that season, the slender rookie was yanked for a pinch -hitter. Today, two of those who batted for Ripken said they didn't recall stepping in.

Now 41, Tim Kessler had forgotten the circumstances but not the clout, a game-winning triple he mashed while hitting for Ripken.

"I never hit a ball so far," said Kessler, an executive for a home improvement retailer, from his home in North Carolina. "But, honest to God, I'd forgotten I did it while batting for Cal.

"I guess I'll be a footnote in his life."

Likewise, Brad Crothers, who grounded out while pinch hitting for the future Hall of Famer.

"I swung for Cal, huh?" said Crothers, a used-car salesman in Aberdeen. "I do remember that he hit everything to right field back then.

"He had the baseball savvy, but not the body."

The knowledge, Ripken had accrued in childhood, toddling after his father in backwater towns where Cal Sr. managed Orioles farm clubs.

How early did Ripken embrace baseball?

"How soon could he walk and drag a Wiffle bat behind him?" Vi Ripken replied. "He'd use that plastic bat to hit rolled-up socks."

By 8, he was far ahead of the curve.

"Cal was one of our best hitters, real intense," recalled Hank Paulick, then coach of the Angels in the Aberdeen Rec League. "His mother used to drive him to practice and before the car stopped - it was still rolling, honest - he'd be out that door and running toward the field."

Competing against other 8-year-olds, Ripken batted .923, and half of his 12 hits were for extra bases.

"He needed no batting instruction," Paulick said. "Back then [1969], many kids went into a Pete Rose crouch and unwound like a rubber band. Cal's was a classic stand-up stance. When he swung, he'd swivel on the ball of his right foot and the heel of his left.

"Boy, he had that [swing] down pat."

Alas, the Angels had Ripken's bat for only a month or two. Every year, come June, the family motored off to the minors to spend the summer with Cal Sr.

"When Calvin left in midseason, it took a big chunk out of my lineup," said Charles Zeigler, his coach on the Aberdeen Indians in the 9-10 age division. "We were neck-and-neck with another team, until he left to be with his dad. Then we fell back to second place."

During the next few years, Ripken flourished, playing beside boys his own age and size. But when he made the varsity as a freshman at Aberdeen, he was dwarfed by bigger, burlier ballplayers.

"You could tell he had the tools," said Glenn Gillis, a high school teammate. "He went to the plate with a purpose, while the rest of us were hacking, hoping to hit something.

"It was a matter of time until his body caught up with his skills."

As a sophomore, Ripken nearly doubled his average . . . to .212. For the first time, he got two hits in a game. Now a shortstop, he even stroked two doubles that season.

Though his stature - and stats - were improving, Ripken kept at it, flailing away against a cranky old pitching machine in the back yard until his drives sailed over a neighbor's yard and into the trees across Beards Hill Road.

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