A Love Unspoken

For the Ripkens, a father's gift was his commitment to them, to baseball and to giving back.

Father's Day

June 19, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

For a young Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Bill, baseball was more than a game and a business. It was a language - a medium - that helped them communicate with their father.

Longtime Orioles coach Cal Ripken Sr. was the epitome of "old school," a devotee of the sport, with a raspy, smoker's voice who liked to talk baseball over beer. His family members say he demonstrated his affection not in emotional bursts but by being there for them in the long term.

The family's life wasn't perfect. In fact, the Ripkens led a nomadic existence for years as the four siblings were pulled from grade school before the school year was out so they and their mother, Vi, could follow Cal Senior around each spring and summer to his latest baseball jobs.

But if there is a Father's Day message in the Ripkens' story, it is a testament to the power of commitment - whether to baseball, family or the community - and unspoken communication.

"In our family in general, I don't know if the `love' word was used very often," says Bill Ripken, who retired as a player in 1998, three years before Cal Junior. "To me, it was a foregone conclusion. It was like the first step in a geometry problem. It was a given."

In a sense, Cal Junior's record streak of 2,632 consecutive games - and his later role in creating a Baltimore-based foundation - were about trying to do well by "Senior," who became the first father to manage two sons simultaneously in the majors, with the Orioles in 1987. Cal Senior, who was fired early in the 1988 season but eventually returned as a coach, died of lung cancer in 1999 at age 63.

The four-year-old foundation, which bears the senior Ripken's name, offers sports programs and grants aimed at disadvantaged youths ages 10-14. Cal Junior - whose office is decorated with a detailed pencil drawing of his father - says the earliest memories of his father were as a teacher, so he wanted to create a foundation with the mission of continuing that legacy, albeit on a larger scale.

"Dad would give of his time in a lot of minor league cities to do Saturday-morning clinics," Ripken Junior says. "I ended up piggybacking, going with him just so I could spend 20 or 30 minutes in the car with him.

"The last thing you wanted to do at 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday is get up. But he would tap me on the knee, and I would force myself up. And I would sit in the hot sun in a minor league bleacher and listen and listen and I would think, `Oh God, this is boring.' "

Ripken Senior, who grew up in Harford County and kept the family there, also ran a summer camp at what is now Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg.

Now, Cal, 44, and Bill, 40, are the ones offering sports clinics because, Cal says, his father "could only impact as many people as he touched."

After writing an instructional book (Play Baseball the Ripken Way) the brothers decided to use last year's book tour to give kids a memorable baseball experience. The Ripkens traveled to 10 cities, most of them major league baseball venues. An exception was Rochester, N.Y., which they included because it was their last minor league stop as players and because Cal Senior had also played and managed in Rochester.

At each city, they conducted a youth clinic at the stadium. Cal Junior says he remembers how much he enjoyed stretching in the grass at big league parks, and he wanted kids to have that experience. Along the way, the foundation donated to Boys and Girls Clubs and gave sports equipment to schools.

On a rainy, early-season day at Boston's Fenway Park, the Ripkens got Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to appear and answer the kids' baseball questions. The Red Sox went on last year to defy a supposed curse and win the World Series.

"One of the first questions a kid asked him was about `The Curse of the Bambino.' You can only imagine that what Curt said to them - and then to have the season unfold as it did - how they feel like they were in the know," Cal Junior says

The Ripkens say they find themselves imparting lessons their father taught them, such as teaching about the "whys" of executing certain baseball plays and stressing appropriate dress.

"He would say that when you're on a field you're supposed to look like you belong," Bill Ripken says. "We could be taking early batting practice in Texas at 2 in the afternoon and there is no one in the stands who could see you, but we were required to wear our batting-practice jersey and regular baseball pants. If Dad was on that team, that's just what you did."

Bill and Cal Junior might have learned toughness by example.

"I can remember when my husband was in the low minors, he got hit in the ear with the ball," Vi Ripken says. "Senior played when he was hurt. He said, `The minute you sit down, somebody is going to take your job.'" She said the boys acquired the message "through osmosis."

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