Cal Ripken Jr. will always be known as the Iron Man for the record-setting 2,632 consecutive games he played for the Orioles. He started his career on an Orioles farm team at 19 and retired from the Baltimore Orioles 21 years later. In baseball terms, he was an old guy. Yet today, on the cusp of 52, Ripken is as focused as ever. He runs three minor league teams, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, the Ripken Stadium and the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy in Aberdeen, Md. He also writes books about baseball.
Of his life so far, “I see myself as extremely lucky,” he said. Recently he spoke about what it’s like to age as a major leaguer, going gray, speed-watching ballgames at the gym and lifting weights again to keep up with his son, Ryan, recently drafted by the Orioles.
— Laura Hambleton
When did you start to notice your game was different?
When you’re an athlete and you play every day and are conditioning yourself every year, the aging is gradual. You just don’t wake up one day and say, “I feel old.” I noticed a benchmark around 30. I wasn’t as resilient as I was in my 20s. They talk about your being in the prime of your career at 28 to 32, in that range. I got to the big leagues at 21, and things like a road trip at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, I could recover from that pretty easily as a younger guy. Then all of a sudden — well, not all of a sudden — around the age of 30, you kind of feel the effects. I think that was not only in the travel, but the physical demands of the sport. I wasn’t as resilient.
But you were in your mid-30s when you broke the record for consecutive games played.
I had one of my best years in 1991; I was 31. I made a renewed effort to work harder. I got better at my diet. I paid attention to how much sleep I got. I was always someone of routine. I became more strict.
Also, I made a renewed effort working out. [Back then, people said] weights and baseball didn’t mix. I went into the weight room right around 30 or 31. My legs weren’t as powerful [as they had been]. I liked how the weight room made my body feel. It gave me sort of an edge. There definitely was a strong effort to stop the aging process in the weight room.
Did you worry that people would think you were an old ballplayer when you started going gray?
My dad had premature gray. I was always the one with the most energy, the one who continued to practice longer. I ran up and down the stairs of different stadiums. I didn’t feel the need to cover up the fact that I was losing my hair or it was graying. When you’re on a team, age is only a factor when you’re talking in the locker room. On the field, you’re all judged the same way.
What is your biggest complaint about being the age you are now?
I’m almost 52; put that on a record. August 24 is my birthday. I played baseball until I was 41. I had back surgery, couple of other things, so physically I have leftover issues. For me personally, transitioning from being a professional athlete to the business world, I wasn’t motivated to be in the gym anymore. I had done that. I killed myself for all those years. But eventually I started to come back to the gym.
Do you want to be in the same shape you were in as a player?
I work out for myself. I have a beautiful gym at my house, and certainly I take advantage of that. I like the solitude. I like the feeling working out gives me now. Recently, I got back into lifting a little bit, which I hadn’t done since I left [baseball]. But my son, who is going to [the University of] South Carolina to play baseball — he is 18 years old — discovered games you can play in the weight room. When he started lifting, I looked at him and said, “He might get stronger than me.” So on a personal basis, he motivated me to lift again.
How much do you lift?
I like squats. I like step-ups. With certain injuries in your shoulders, you have to be careful what you lift and how you lift. My gains are not to break any lifting records. I just try to continue to improve.
I use a lot of dumbbells. I try to use a weight vest when I do step-ups. My shoulder seems not to be working like it should right now. I don’t think it is from all of the years of throwing. Might be too much batting practice. If I were to advise people, especially people who are aging, your goals should be the ones that are important to you, and you should not measure yourself against someone else.
What is your workout routine?
I try to mix it up. I like interval training. You get a burst of intensity; at the same time, with the accumulated effect by limiting your rest in between, you get the cardio effect.
For my latest routine, I like paying attention to the baseball games. On my iPad, I can watch a condensed baseball game. The Orioles played the [Red] Sox, and they played 17 innings. That would take a long time to watch. A condensed game, they just put all the action plays in and you can watch a game in 10 to 12 minutes. If I am doing three different pieces of equipment, I’ll watch a game [on the elliptical], then I will move to the bike and watch 10 to 12 minutes of another game. Then, I’ll move to the treadmill for another 10 to 12 minutes. In the end, you’ve done 30 minutes of cardio.
What advice about aging would you give a young player such as the Nationals’ Bryce Harper?
As a very young guy, I got to the big leagues, and we had an aging team. We had Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton and Al Bumbry, great players who made the Orioles successful. But all of a sudden a lot of them were aging, and retirement was close by. When we were riding on the bus, I would ask them questions: What would you have done differently? Honestly, many of them said things like “I wish I would have worked harder or taken it more seriously. I wish I understood I only had so much time.” I made up my mind you had to maximize your opportunity. Maybe that was some of the motivational force for playing every day even if you feel tired or were injured. You’ll never get that day back.
Is there anything you regret?
Some people might say I’d regret that I played too much. No. Each and every game was an opportunity to meet the challenges of that particular day. One of the things I am most proud of, whatever condition I was in, I came to the ballpark ready to meet the challenge. Sometimes it worked out; sometimes it didn’t.
How do you measure success now?
Baseball has taught me you move the ball forward, continue to work and continue to have successes. It’s the accumulation of those successes that make it all worthwhile. In the business world, it’s like I gave everyone a 20-year head start on me. I don’t expect to know everything; it is all learning to me. Hopefully, I will continue to learn and continue to move the ball forward, incrementally.
Success is in the process. It is in the execution. It is in the operation. It is in the day-to-day. You can have a plan, a plan to work off of, but plans evolve and change ever so slightly through the game action. We call each and every day a game. In my world I had a game every day. Granted, there’s not an event every day, but it is the same process.
What keeps you going?
When I finished my baseball career, I was 41. At 41 you’re young, but in baseball some people think you are too old to play, so you are pushed out that way. If you have made some money and saved some money, you have choices. Some people look at me and say: I thought you’d be in pajamas all day or you would be playing golf all the time, leading a life of leisure. I am thinking, where is the meaning in that?
To me what keeps you vital is: You don’t live each day remembering who you were. Baseball almost seems like another lifetime ago. You need to do something that makes you feel good day-to-day. Just as you have a sense of accomplishment as a baseball player each and every day — you have a goal to win a game or success as a hitter or make good plays in the field — I need to feel I am accomplishing something.
Business and kids business give me that chance. I am comfortable with the business of baseball. I am very astute at how kids think in the game of baseball. The whole business concept was to provide a whole big league experience for kids.
They all want to be professional baseball players, but only 1 percent of all people can fulfill that dream, so you want to bring that experience to all the other kids who don’t have a chance. In Aberdeen, we have a mini Camden Yards. Ours is a two-thirds size field with a big brick building like the warehouse. Some big left-handed kids can hit the warehouse. It is a great feeling. We have a mini-Fenway. Kids can get the sensation of watching the Orioles play in Boston.
What is left that you want to do?
The clock seems to tick a lot faster when you get older! I used to think five years was an eternity. It seemed a long way off. Now it is a planning cycle. What’s next? I’m not sure. Definitely, I am in a transition time of my life. Both my kids are going to be out of the house. My wife, Kelly, and I will be empty-nesters, which then could provide opportunity, or there could be a lot of emptiness. I’m not sure yet. I look at it in a positive way.
What advice did your dad give you that you give to your children?
The most important thing a dad can give his kid is confidence. I remember an expression my dad used to tell me when I went away to play pro ball: No matter where they send you, know you belong. It’s a simple thing, one that I didn’t fully realize at the time. I was a 17-year-old kid when I was drafted; some of the other guys were 22, 23, 24, and you think, “What am I doing here, these guys are better than me.” Then you remember the comment that your dad said and you see the significance. Know that you belong.
I always thought there was a burden on my kids. People expect more of them athletically. My daughter is a wonderfully graceful athlete but wasn’t a competitive one. She is a wonderful skier. Early in school, sometimes, gym teachers were expecting her to be the star of the field hockey or the star of the lacrosse team. [They wondered] why isn’t she more motivated to play basketball? It put a burden on her. Then with my son, who did like competitive sports, that burden went everywhere with him. He is under scrutiny a lot more. I can’t shelter or protect him from it, but I can help give perspective.