Appreciation: The Father Figure for a Franchise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 1999; Page D1
Thirty-five years ago in the Northern League, Cal Ripken Sr. managed the Aberdeen Pheasants in South Dakota. One day, the Pheasants had a 13-hour bus trip from Duluth to Grand Forks. When the driver got tired, Ripken took the wheel in the middle of the night and drove until morning while the team slept. Near noon, with Grand Forks still a ways off, the bus broke down.
Sometimes, Ripken could fix a bus; during 20 seasons in the bushes, six as a catcher and 14 as a manager, you learn those things. This time, he couldn't. A player was sent to a farmhouse for help.
What was Ripken going to do with this bus full of rookies tired, bored, far from home, full of fears about their fledgling careers? To them, he was as he would be to players in 15 minor league towns the very symbol of their entire sport: teacher, leader, friend, father.
Once, Ripken held batting practice in a cow pasture. This time, there was spring wheat in all directions. Then Ripken noticed his golf clubs.
"Rip had us go out into the fields," Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, then a rookie, once told me. "When we were six hundred feet away, he starts hitting these long tee shots. We're running through the wheat like little kids trying to shag golf balls in our baseball gloves."
Cal Ripken Sr., who died yesterday at 63, had a face so formidably stern, a respect for discipline and authority so deep and standards so high you'd think that no one would ever have a soft feeling or a gentle word for him.
Yet everyone did. They knew the man underneath the catcher in the wheat. Superstar Eddie Murray considered Ripken a surrogate father. But so did journeyman Rich Dauer. Both, and dozens of other Orioles, considered it an honor to be addressed as "lunkhead," his favorite term. Many could imitate his drill instructor voice beside the batting cage. This week, a shaken Elrod Hendricks called him "my encyclopedia of baseball" and "the man who taught me to be a coach." Manager Ray Miller recalled how Ripken taught him to fill out his first pitching chart more than 25 years ago.
Ripken broke in everybody, right down to the batboy. In the late '70s, he usually would be the last person left in the Orioles' locker room. He sat on a stool in front of his locker, leaning forward, elbows on knees, a cigarette always between his fingers, as he scanned the room, watching, until there was nothing else to observe, not one detail left to absorb and perhaps digest into some baseball meaning. Of course, you would sit down next to him; in his earnest, honest, taciturn way, he'd answer every question about strategy or playing technique. He would even tell you why Earl Weaver was mad at you. He never wanted to be quoted. He just wanted to teach. In fact, there were only two things he'd never do: take credit or criticize.
The idea that a person could find deep satisfaction through fulfilling difficult responsibilities while never focusing on personal rewards seems antique these days. Yet Ripken's example makes you wonder if the century, not Senior, has lost its way. "He's never really been in touch with the times," Ripken's wife, Vi, once told me. "But then that may not be so bad, because the times aren't so good."
Ripken showed how much more important it was to be in touch with yourself than with your age. He had his own Ripken take on things. Once, a groundhog was eating Vi's squash garden. Trivial? Or a grand campaign?
Ripken got up before dawn three days in a row and sat in the garden with his shotgun in his lap. He took his lunch and wouldn't move until he went to the ballpark in the afternoon. "The third morning, before we were out of bed, that gun went off one time," said son Fred. "That was the end of the groundhog."
How many days would Senior have waited? "As long as it took."
Ripken had his rough edges. Nobody could scald an umpire's ears better. Senior really did say, "Drink your milk, Cal." But he also taught Junior how to be a bench jockey. Into his fifties, Ripken had one of the game's scary yet comical tempers. Rip wouldn't hurt anybody. But what if he exploded? Suddenly, you'd have fragments of angry third-base coach everywhere.
As forbiddingly old-school as he could seem to outsiders, that's just how comfortably old-shoe he felt to those who knew him. He was the straight man in a house of laughter, usually willing to be the stoic butt of banter, especially from his youngest son, Billy. Vi preferred to stop at three kids, but Cal wanted the fourth, insisting, "He'll be the joy." Once, in a restaurant, when Billy was acting irresistible, Cal wrote to Vi on a napkin, "He's a joy."
For any of his children, he would do anything perhaps to make up for all the time they had been apart in his minor league days. Once, Ripken's daughter, Ellen, was in a batting slump on the eve of the women's fast-pitch softball nationals. Naturally, dad pitched her batting practice while her boyfriend shagged balls in the outfield. "Dad had a game that night and I thought he'd spend a few minutes with me," she said. "We worked for an hour and a half."
As a manager, Ripken won more than 1,000 games in the majors and minors. He coached for two AL pennant winners and helped develop a generation of Orioles stars. But, ironically and wonderfully, it's his own family not his Orioles baseball family that defines him best. Let's see Vi, Ellen, Billy, Fred. There's someone else in this wonderful immediate clan whom Ripken left behind him as his legacy, isn't there?
Yes, Ripken also had a son named Cal, who grew up to be a player so good, and a public figure so generous and disciplined, that he truly deserved his father's name. Now, that moniker Cal Ripken will be remembered, and respected, as long as baseball is played. For some of us, the name will always evoke memories of two fine men, not just one.
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