The Rookies And The Legend

If your first year in the major leagues happens to be Cal Ripken's last, you can learn a lot about what it means to pay attention.

September 26, 2001|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

It's 4:15 p.m. on a game day, and the home team's clubhouse is abuzz. Six players at a table play cards. Two play cribbage. A few slouch on overstuffed sofas, watching ballgames on televisions mounted above 40-plus lockers. Some are pulling on their black socks and black tops for the on-field warm-up that begins with stretching at 4:45 sharp. Hip-hop throbs from a boom box. Game time is 7:05.

At the far end of the clubhouse, away from where the few reporters stand, is a double locker - two adjoining lockers, in fact - which stands empty. Its size bespeaks the territory he has earned with 431 home runs and 3,180 hits in 2,988 games, his 2,632 games played in a row between 1982 and 1998, and his general ambassadorship for Baltimore and for baseball. But at this most social of occasions on game day, Cal Ripken - as usual - is nowhere to be found.

Media members and teammates have remarked over the years on a separateness they see between Ripken and the rest of the team. He often makes his own travel arrangements, for one thing, and stays at a different hotel from the team's. But it's not aloofness. His tactics away from home lessen the exposure he gets, freeing him to think about his job - being Cal Ripken, ballplayer. And today, it isn't his absence here but rather his presence elsewhere that defines Ripken. As the others shuffle cards, eyeball ESPN and chat with reporters, he's preparing himself for this evening's game.

Talk to anyone close to Cal Ripken and you'll hear one word more than any other: preparation. On the strict schedule he has devised for himself over the years, he spends several hours readying mind and body for the tilt that night. And according to Vice President for Baseball Operations Syd Thrift, as well as manager Mike Hargrove, it might just be that preparation that sets Ripken apart from everyone else in America's national pastime.

Hunched over a copy of The Sun in the manager's office, Thrift is scrutinizing box scores, but he's glad to shove it aside and talk about the legend. He'll happily brag on No. 8, especially on the subject of preparation. "Cal has the best, most precise pre-game preparation of any player I've ever seen," says Thrift, who has seen more than his share in a career that has shuffled him from Kansas City to Oakland, from Chicago to Pittsburgh.

"That alone is a major, major component in his success. We have a lot of very young players, and we have a model in him. They see the way he goes about his business, and that's a very, very valuable thing to have. That's the way learning happens - not just in baseball, but in life."

Hargrove, a master at isolating the silver lining, adds: "Of course you'd like to finish as high in the standings as possible, but our players have competed hard and gained a lot of valuable experience."

They've gotten it in a once-in-a-lifetime way. It has come alongside a 41-year-old future Hall of Famer making his victory lap around the American League, taking bows and gifts and thanking fans of each opposing team. He has, nagging injuries and all, been one of the team's best hitters. And as the losses mount, if anything reflects the passing of the torch from past glory days to an uncertain future, it's the presence of Cal Ripken Jr., the iron man who started soaking up the so-called Oriole Way as a toddler and oozes it now more than ever.

Maybe the key question of the 2001 season is this: Have the kids been paying attention?

For some rookies, it has mainly just been an honor to be around Ripken. Larry Bigbie, the lean, left-handed first-year outfielder, started 2001 with the Double-A Bowie Baysox and was just hoping, he says, to have a decent year, stay healthy and maybe get called up in September, when team rosters swell from 25 to 40. Instead, he was summoned to the majors on June 23, has played in 40 big-league games and gone to the plate 103 times against big-league pitching.

He has also been around Ripken. Bigbie's personal interaction with the third baseman has been minimal. Once, at the end of an inning in the field, he worried he had misplayed a ball and asked Cal about it. "He's not a guy who'll sit you down and say, `Look, here's what you have to learn.' But if you ever need advice, his door is always open." Mostly what he has learned from watching is the consummate pro's approach. "Cal plays like he's got something to prove, like somebody's trying to win his spot," says Bigbie. "He does it every single pitch. At this stage in his career, after all he's done, that's amazing."

It has meant just as much merely to be next to No. 8 in his final year. Bigbie's first major-league hit - he lashed it in Toronto on June 28 - was all the more special because it came with Cal Ripken in the lineup. "That ball is in my trophy case," he says. "It's something I'll always have. I'll always be able to tell about it."

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