Baseball has been part of the grain of the American family for more than a century. But never has there been an American baseball family like the one raised by Baltimore Oriole third base coach Cal Ripken and his wife Vi. Since 1957, when the sweethearts from Aberdeen, Md., were married and hit the road to live in 15 minor league towns in 20 years, the Ripkens and their four children have struggled and, eventually, flourished in a life saturated and defined by the game.

Perhaps it speaks well for the sport, certainly it speaks spendidly for the Ripkens, that their difficult and sometimes tormenting affair with baseball has, after 27 years, borne such proud and promising fruit.

The Ripkens have always been old-fashioned--dignified facing the world but full of foolishness among themselves. They foster the simple virtues that the common-sense essayist Montaigne wrote about long ago: "We must show what there is that is good and clean at the bottom of the pot."

As the peppery Vi says of her salty husband, "He's never really been in touch with the times, but then that may not be so bad because the times aren't so good."

Now, after a lifetime of enforced modesty, the Ripkens have begun to harbor a dream so preposterous it almost qualifies as a fantasy. After all their laboring in the vineyard, they wonder if, having sowed, they may not also reap.

This is what the Ripkens hope will happen in the near, and not implausible, future. The year is, let us say, 1988.

FADE TO THE FUTURE

Cal Ripken Jr., the American League's rookie of the year in 1982, is 27 and at the peak of a career that may take him to Cooperstown. A free agent after the '87 season, he's re-signed with the Orioles--a multiyear deal for $10 million. He could have gotten more elsewhere, but everybody knows why he wanted to stay.

As Cal said back in 1983, "I enjoy playing shortstop. But, like I've told my brother Billy, I'll be glad to move back to third base when he's ready to take over at short." Now, he's ready.

Bill Ripken was signed by the Orioles as an 11th-round draft pick in '82, played in Class A in 1982 and 1983. Some folks laughed, or muttered "nepotism," when he hit .244 in rookie ball. That was before he hit the typical Ripken late-growing spurt. Just 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds when he signed, Bill was already 6-1 and 175 by '83. Just as his mom predicted, he ended up 6-2 and 190 pounds.

Cal needed four years in the minors, but Bill, now 23 and full grown, took longer. His big brother had more tools. That never bothered either Ripken since they'd always been each other's biggest fans. "Cal's Cal and I'm me," said Billy. "I'm not going to mess myself up by comparing myself to that big horse. I'm just going to be as good as I can be."

Cal at third and Billy at short? Or Cal at short and Billy at second?

It would be a tough decision for the Orioles' new manager, their father.

After a dozen years as third base coach, Ripken had replaced Joe Altobelli, who'd retired. It was the logical choice since Ripken, 52, was one of three finalists for the managing job after Earl Weaver retired in '82.

The baseball world came to Baltimore to behold this miracle. Only two fathers ever had a son play on the team they managed or coached--Connie Mack and Jim Hegan. And neither of their sons was a star. Now, brothers side by side in the same infield, playing for their manager father. How did it happen?

"Well," says Big Cal, a man of few words, "it's a long story."

Jim Palmer was a rookie in the Northern League 20 seasons ago when he first met a tough cuss named Cal Ripken, his manager for the Aberdeen Pheasants in South Dakota.

This wiry fellow with with the face like a ratchet seemed like a hard-boiled old coot to Palmer. He'd played six years as a minor-league catcher and was in his fourth as a manager in the bushes. Married with three kids and a fourth on the way, Ripken was only 28; he'd been an adult for a long time.

One day, the Pheasants were on a 13-hour bus trip from Duluth to Grand Forks--a typical trip. When the driver tired, Ripken took over the wheel in the middle of the night while the team slept. Finally, after driving from midnight 'til almost noon, with Grand Forks still a way off, the bus broke down.

Sometimes Ripken could fix a bus and sometimes he couldn't. This time, he couldn't. A player was dispatched to a farm to phone for help while Ripken figured out what to do with a bus full of rookies who were tired, stiff and bored.

Once before, Ripken had held batting practice in a cow pasture. This time, there was spring wheat in all directions. Then Ripken noticed his golf clubs.

"He had us go out into the fields," recalled Palmer. "When we get 600 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."

Ripken and his family have come a long way since he fungoed golf balls to his Pheasants in the wheat.

Ripken became an Orioles coach in 1976 after 13 years as a minor-league manager. He and Vi thought that was the end of the rainbow. They'd return each fall and winter to the hamlet north of Baltimore where they'd grown up, but now they could settle down and watch what was left of their kids' childhoods. They had no ambitions beyond that. They'd made the bigs, at last.

Too often, lives start brightly, then dim with the years. The poet Yeats, recalling the friends of his youth, said, "Not a finish worthy of the start." That applies to baseball, too. Even the most gifted baseball men of Ripken's generation have left behind stories that make us want to cry. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, contemporaries of Ripken, now work as casino handshakers; both are barred from baseball.

Ripken, so small that nobody offered a contract 'til he was 21, has reversed this process. After a quarter-century as the good servant, the hitter of fungoes and fixer of buses, the dutiful man always worrying that he was short-changing his family, Ripken has seen that--sometimes--bread does return on the waters.

Ripken uprooted his family nine times as a player, then nine more as a manager, taking them to every town. Yet, through all these dislocations, the family grew together, not apart. "We made friends with each other because we were moving so much that we were always leaving our other friends," says Cal Jr. now.

To the Ripken children--Ellen (24), Cal (22), Fred (21) and Bill (18)--their parents represented a strict world that blended love with discipline and order; they were strict on vices, demanded respectful manners, hard work. "My dad really did say, 'Drink your milk, Cal!,' " says Cal Jr.

Fred Ripken tells a favorite Ripken story to show his father's temperament and the tone of his household. A groundhog had been eating squash in the family garden, so "Pop 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 he wouldn't move 'til it was time to go to the park in the afternoon. The third morning, before we were out of bed, that gun went off one time. That was the end of the groundhog."

How many days would his father have waited for the groundhog to return?

"As long as it took."

The perfect complement to the taciturn Cal is the vivacious Vi, who's full of good cheer, common sense and conversation. She's seen her husband mellow. "It used to be when he said jump, you jumped. Now, he's loosened up."

The cause for that may be the needling inflicted on the great groundhog slayer by his wife and her two most gregarious children--Cal and Billy. "Their father will finally get exasperated and say, 'Will you stop it? I don't have anything to smile about,' " says Vi. "That playfulness is with Junior 24 hours a day."

Calvin and Billy are close in temperament--innocent jokesters, intensely competitive, poised in public but bubbling over with foolishness in private. For instance, the brothers were notorious for their homemade tape recordings--satires and insults in the form of "commercials" directed at their peers.

"Cal and Billy would sit in the basement by the hour, making those tapes, just laughing at each other's jokes like two ignorant fools," says Ellen.

When did this form of amusement end?

"Oh, we still do it," says Cal Jr.

Calvin and Billy have shown parallel talents as well as temperaments. Both were shortstops and pitchers in high school. Both arrived in the minors too spindly to hit a homer in their rookie season. (Cal hit .264 at Bluefield, Billy .244.) Both came on thereafter. This spring, when Billy reported to the Orioles' training camp, Cal Sr. asked Cal Jr., "Who's that new kid over there?"

"That's Billy, Dad."

"Can't be. Much too big."

Billy Ripken injured his shoulder this spring, missed two weeks, and will stay at extended spring training in Florida for 10 more days until he's assigned to a Class A team in Bluefield or Newark. The whole family had hoped he'd make the jump to Hagerstown--close to home, a fast-track league.

"I just want a good start wherever they send me, then I can make them make room for me (at Hagerstown)," says Billy, who has planned for a baseball career "since I was 8 or 9. It's always seemed right to go to the yard (ball park) and put on a uniform."

Billy, who is his own best critic, says he's comfortable at short and has a strong arm. "I run pretty well, but our family's not noted for its wheels. My hitting's been slack. I see a fast ball and my eyes light up, but I still have trouble with the curve. Like Cal, I call Dad when I'm not hitting. Even though I'm a thousand miles away, he can tell me what I'm doing wrong."

If Cal is the pride of the family, Billy is the darling.

"After three children, I wasn't so happy about having Billy," says Vi. "But Cal Sr., insisted, 'He'll be the joy.' When we've been in a restaurant and Billy has done something, Cal would write on a napkin, 'He's a joy.'

"There is a difference between Calvin and Billy," she continues. "Just give me a second and I'll think of what it is . . .

"Billy is more vociferous. He lets everything out," she decides. "If things bother Cal, he pouts."

Vi Ripken worried that Cal's moodiness would hurt him as a pro until her husband assured her, "It won't last. Ballplayers catch a flaw and needle you until, out of self-preservation, you correct it."

"But," insists Vi, "I still think Cal puts on the pouts sometimes."

Naturally, mothers know. Scott McGregor loves to agitate, saying, "J.R., why are you so moody? What do you have to be unhappy about?"

"I am moody," says Cal, who's bouncy compared to most players. "But I disguise my moods well."

He has never disguised his desire to play ball.

"When he was in Little League in Asheville, he'd sit on the bench and study the game, not just play it," says his mother. At 13, Cal was in his father's oversized catching equipment, handling 80 mph pitches during batting practice for the AA Asheville team.

"I felt like I was hiding inside all that big equipment," he says. "When I started out, I did things to please my dad. I remember those clinics on Saturday morning in Rochester. He'd come in my bedroom, shake me and ask me if I wanted to go with him. I'd say, 'Sure, I'll go.' And I'd be bored to death. But I could see that it made him happy.

"Years later, when I was playing in the minors, I'd do some little pro trick and Dad would say, 'Where'd you learn that?' and I'd say, 'From you,' and he'd say, 'When?' and I'd say, 'At one of those clinics.'

"Maybe I started doing it for him, but then it got to be for me."

Ironically, Cal's drive not only to play but to study the game may have stunted his brother Fred's interest. Ellen calls Fred "the best all-around athlete in the family," and Cal says, "He could be as good as I am.

"I always try to figure out why Fred stopped playing," says Cal. "I was a year older, but we always played on the same teams. I always had to edge him out, because he was younger . . . Maybe he was looking for his own identity."

Fred Ripken's love now is motorcycles--riding, building or fixing them; he works for a Suzuki dealership in Aberdeen and is the family's free spirit. "As free as they get," says Billy. Adds Ellen, "Fred's the type of person who'll give and give, and not expect much in return. . . He's a natural at everything. He stands in the woods where you can't even see him and throws a ball a hundred yards and hits you in the glove . . . But Fred only loved the games. He never liked to practice. He always had better things to do."

"I'd rather sit in the stands and drink beer," says Fred, whose blunt speech matches his father's and who, like his dad, has a soft heart. When a slightly homesick Billy headed to Bluefield last year, Fred drove his young brother all the way and, in Billy's words, "gave me a seven-hour pep talk."

"Dad never pushed any of us in anything," says Ellen. "I don't think he even expected Cal or Billy to play beyond high school." In fact, Ellen is the one who often wishes she'd had the baseball opportunity Fred passed up. She'll tell her mother, "If she'd been a boy, you'd have three playing (pro) ball now," says her mother.

"When I made the high school varsity," says Cal, "Ellen still had the best arm in the family."

Now, Ellen plays third base on a women's fast-pitch softball team. She was all-region on a team that went to the nationals in Colorado last season.

"I saw her play last summer. I was very impressed," says Cal Jr. "She plays third and she can really pick it. She was in for a bunt and some girl hit a hot-smash and she backhanded it like it was nothing. First time up, she hit a seed (i.e., line drive) over the left fielder's head for a home run."

"Ellen's gotten her accolades (as an athlete)," says her mother. "Unfortunately, for women, that's as far as you get."

Ellen Ripken has played in fast-pitch tournaments where she was booed and taunted because of the family name. Sometimes, she prefers friends to introduce her to as just "Ellie," not "Ellie Ripken." Still, when she went into a batting slump before the nationals last year, she knew where to go for help. Back to the family. Her father pitched batting practice, while her fiance David Bonsal, who was a star on Cal Jr.'s high school varsity baseball team, shagged balls. "Dad's a natural teacher because he's so patient. He had a game that night and I thought he'd spend a few minutes with me," she says. "We worked for an hour and a half."

The two Ripkens stand beside the batting cage in Memorial Stadium, Little Rip almost a head taller than Big Rip.

"Come on, lunkhead. Line drives up the middle," Little Rip barks at Rich Dauer, breaking the quiet with a perfect drill-sergeant imitation of his dad.

Big Rip has to put his head on his arm to hide his laughing. He's been yelling at Dauer for years, since they were all in Asheville.

"Guess if you say something often enough, some people learn," says Big Rip.

Little Rip has turned his cap bill up in front, instantly tranforming himself from the 6-foot-5 matinee idol who inspired "Cal's Gals" signs in the bleachers into a Gomer Pyle type. His father looks away. He's told the kid a million times, "That doesn't look like a ballplayer," but the son keeps doing it, " 'cause he hates it and I love to agitate him."

"I read in the paper today where Eddie Murray hasn't hit a home run in a long time, but that he hit two foul home runs yesterday," says Ripken. "I guess when you get rich and famous like Eddie, you start getting publicity for your foul balls."

Eddie Murray tries to pretend he isn't listening. All the veterans around the cage snicker.

A year ago, Little Rip was as quiet as a rookie should be. After a home run on opening day, he went one for 30 and looked lost. Then he got hit in the head with a 91-mph pitch. The helmet had a hole the size of a half-dollar in the temple.

After one day off, he was back in the lineup, started hitting and never stopped. He finished with 28 homers and 93 RBI. "I got mad after I was beaned. Maybe it got me going."

Like a chick breaking out of its shell, young Ripken showed more of himself, his true shape and skills, with each month. At midseason, Weaver put Ripken at short, a spot he hadn't played since high school. In July, he struggled. In August, he'd adjusted. In September, he led. His fielding was steady, his brain was the central switchboard for a defense that lacked smarts 'til he took charge.

These days, Little Rip can say anything he wants to anybody.

"My (14-year-old) daughter says she's going to join your fan club," says Jim Palmer, thinking this will embarrass Little Rip. Palmer has miscalculated.

"She's good-looking, isn't she?" says Little Cal. "And I hear her old man's got a lot of money. Hey, can I marry her in seven years?

"Hey, Cakes," says Little Rip, his voice rising in victory as Palmer flees to the showers, "can I marry into your family?"

No family could be more at ease with a potential superstar son than the Ripkens.

"I'm amazed when people want Cal's autograph or talk about him like he's so special. He's just a guy doing his job well," says his mother, a three-sport high school athlete. "When Cal makes a good play and everybody claps, I think, 'Don't they know that's what they're supposed to be doing?' People say, 'Oh, but you live with them,' like we go around wearing golden shoes . . .

"Cal knows he's good. You can tell he wants the game to come to him, so he has a chance to win it. The success stories are the ones who are very comfortable with themselves . . . "

It's Ripken Sr. who's sometimes a bit uncomfortable with his son's fame.

"I get more attention now than I ever did before, because of Cal Jr. Now they're aware that there is a Cal Sr.," says the father, according to the mother.

The elder Ripken is an explosive man who keeps his feelings deeply concealed. His eruptions at umpires, like two blowups this month, are genuine furies. "When something goes against his grain," says Vi, "he just completely loses it."

Once, in 1979, after having had too much to drink on a road trip, Ripken Sr. fell asleep sitting against a wall in a Detroit hotel lobby. When a couple of cops roused him, thinking he might be a vagrant, Ripken saw blue--the color of umpires--and blew his cork. An Orioles' official had to bail him out of the hoosegow the next morning.

Vi Ripken wishes her husband could modulate his assertiveness a liitle more. For instance, she wishes he'd pushed harder for the Orioles' managing job.

"I felt very hopeful," she says. "Cal said, 'I've been interviewed. There's nothing to campaign for. Either they want me or they don't.' I'd tease him and say, 'You tell 'em, 'This kid of mine is going to be a free agent in a few years. You better keep us happy.' "

That, of course, is not his style. You can barely even get him to say he's proud of his son. He insists he's taught Dauer and Murray more than Cal.

"I don't like it when he starts that speech, and how you have to judge a player over his whole career, not a couple of years," says Vi Ripken. "That seems very cold, doesn't it? Like the kid's not going to be allowed to the dinner table unless he's in the Hall of Fame.

"I've asked Cal Sr. to phrase that differently."

That long progression toward Cooperstown is going nicely. This year, Ripken is hitting .288 and his extra-base-hits and run-production are up; he's leading AL shortstops in turning double plays and his capacities at short have risen so quickly that, soon, he may be thought of as a star fielder, too.

For one so gentle in temperament, Little Rip is extremely resilient. His gypsy childhood has left him independent, self-reliant and tough. He can't, for instance, remember if he went to school that year in Miami, and his only recollection of Dallas is "brave mom" capturing a real poisonous scorpion in his room--alive--so he could keep it in a jar. Those qualities have proved useful. In the minors, he started doing his own cooking and hasn't stopped.

"Everything I've tried, I've made a mess of the first time, but I've never burned anything so badly that I couldn't eat it." Ripkens don't throw good food in the garbage.

Typical of his no-foolishness approach is his advice to Billy: "Be yourself and prove yourself." Cal has always been aware of the charges of nepotism that follow the family, as well as the jealousy. Wives of minor league teammates talked about his father-son pull until "I felt like taking a stat sheet with me to parties." When he and Billy are having a boisterous time in public, "I've heard people say, 'They're Ripkens. They think they can do anything they want.' I guess I have enemies that I'm not really responsible for."

Though his roots are in little Aberdeen, with its one-block business district and a community point of view that his mother describes as "not modern but not naive," Little Cal seems to a have a leather-skinned immunity to the distortions and entrapments of budding celebritihood. Again it is the family that provides ballast. Talk to the Ripkens for hours and not once does the financial windfall in Cal Jr.'s future get mentioned. "I'd like to act the way Eddie (Murray) does," says Cal, when asked about a future megacontract. "He's just the same person he was before."

For the Ripkens, dreams are about other things. They worry about Bill making the hard climb up through the minors. They know the odds against having two big leaguers in one family. How much does managing in the majors mean to their father and will he get his chance? Will Little Rip stay healthy?

"When I think about baseball, I think about the sport of it, not the glamorous life," says Cal Jr. "I'd like to play every game, every inning, every day for 20 years, like Brooks Robinson and Pete Rose. I'd like for little kids to emulate me. To hear some kids playing and have one say, 'I'm Cal Ripken,' that would be the ultimate degree of success to me."

Some say that a decent hard-working common man, a man with a high school education and no great gifts, has little chance to leave a mark in the world. Some say a strong, caring woman who marries such a man, and bounces among 15 towns, scrimping to stretch each dollar, raising a passel of kids while her husband labors at an obscure job, some say such a woman has wasted her life.

Some say the American family is an endangered institution. Some disagree.