In Ripken country, northeastern Maryland where both Cal Sr. and Cal Jr. grew up playing baseball on sun-baked diamonds between fields of tall corn, they say the Orioles are going through a rough spell. They have an understated way of putting some things. But they know what the trouble is: it's the pitching.
"McGregor's been done for several years. He and Flanagan, both, and why they were signed to these long contracts I'll never know," said Oliver Ripken, 69, seated deep in his yellow, wooden porch chair with a pillow in the crook. A player himself once, he listens evenings to the Orioles. With his earphones pulled down, he can't even hear the Amtrak, which hits Perryman, Md., with the roar of a breaking wave, the scream of a hundred tormented dogs and a clack, clack, clack, clack.
North across the Susquehanna River in Rising Sun, where the cornfields widen and slope to the horizon, the names Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan are brought up again in similar appraisal. "They have been finished for a few years," said Bill Ripken, 61. A bank vice president with a baseball past as well, he leaned forward from behind his ordered desk as he finished a discourse on pitching as a team's foundation with what sounded like a rural baseball adage, "Pitching, it takes you where you go."
Oliver and Bill are Cal Sr.'s older brothers. They led Cal Sr. to the game, just as he would his sons, Cal Jr., the Orioles' all-star shortstop, and young Bill, an Orioles prospect in Class AAA ball. Now that their kid brother -- he's 51 -- manages the Orioles, Oliver and Bill can't help but rue a fate that has yoked him with unproductive veteran players on long-term, lucrative contracts and a pitching staff in ruins. Will they see these modern Orioles playing Cal Sr.'s game of old-fashioned country hardball?
"Cal Jr. pitched for Aberdeen High School," said Oliver, a pack of Camels in his shirt pocket, ready for the next Orioles crisis. "I been wondering, what with his arm, why they haven't taken him off shortstop and" -- he laughed -- "started him in a ball game down there."
"Calvin Jr. is absolutely beside himself -- I think he would sacrifice having good years to see the team win," said Bill Ripken, his voice rising. "His attitude is win rather than individual contributions. He's been brought up with that idea."
Cal Sr. taught his son the virtues of team play, having first learned them himself as a teen-ager on the Aberdeen Canners of the Sunday afternoon Susquehanna League. Cal Sr.'s brothers were his teammates. Ollie played right field and Bill center field. Cal Sr. caught. They all loved baseball. "You couldn't wait 'til Sunday," said Ollie, "to get out there to play."
Ollie won the Susquehanna League batting title. Bill was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and made it up to AAA with the Montreal Royals of the International League before he abruptly quit.
No less a legend than Branch Rickey, who brought Jackie Robinson into the game, came to Aberdeen, marched into the bank where Bill had gotten a job and tried to coax him back to baseball. Rickey even offered him a job in management if he didn't make it as a player. Weary of travel, Bill Ripken stuck with the bank, and settled down to play for the Canners. Every winter for several years, Brooklyn would send him a contract, but Ripken never would sign. He just dug his roots.
"He just plain quit," said Ollie, still amazed.
"He had an arm one time that I compare with Colavito. He threw it kind of the same way -- reach up and pull down. He had a good eye for hitting.
"I'd like to see some of these guys today hit the ball where it's pitched instead of everybody trying to pull it over the fence. Now this third baseman for the Orioles -- Knight -- Knight does try to hit the ball around. If they pitch it on the outside, he'll hit it to right field. But Gerhart, he thinks every time he comes up there he should hit a home run. Seems to me they'd get on him about that thing."
Ollie and Bill were content to make baseball part of their lives; Cal Sr. made it his livelihood. From Canners catcher to a contract with the Orioles and years of playing and managing in the minor leagues. "He went on his little jaunts in the Midwest," said Ollie. The list of teams Cal Sr. played on and managed reads like a Greyhound timetable.
"He followed Weaver right around the horn. Of course, he didn't follow him immediately to the Orioles level, but he finally made it there. I just hope he has a little success out of it. His goal always was to be a big league manager. And he wanted to be in Baltimore if he could. I doubt that he'd ever consider going anywhere else. He might, but his roots are kind of here. He's interested in his home. When he has a chance, he's riding his mower around the yard, cutting the grass, trimming the bushes. He likes to get his old clothes on."
"He was very optimistic when he left here for this season," said Bill. "Little did he know what lay ahead. Little did he know."
"I was talking to his wife the other day," said Ollie. "I said, 'Has he blown his lid yet?' She said, 'No.'
"So I would say he's taking it pretty good so far. I've only talked to him once or twice on the phone, that's all. He doesn't need my advice. For Bill or me to say something to him, I think it's wrong. So I don't say anything."
Bill did have one baseball talk with Cal Sr. before spring training. "I said, 'I'm sorry to see that McGregor and Flanagan' -- who I have had a lot of respect for in the past -- I said, 'If they're going to be a part of your makeup, among the starting first four pitchers, I don't know how you're going to survive.' He let that go in one ear and out the other."
"If he can get this thing turned around some in the second half," said Ollie, "and get signed up for next year -- he's on a one-year contract -- I think that he might have a few successful seasons. But he's sure gotta get by this one."
It's rare for a family to have two such ballplayers as Cal Jr. and Billy. Rarer for a family to have had two sets of Cals and Bills. Oliver has seen them all grow up.
"When I played in the Susquehanna League for Aberdeen, Cal Sr. was the bat boy," said Oliver. "That's where he started. And as he got a little older he went into catching. I was the catcher, but when he was ready I moved out to right field." So it is that when young Bill makes the Orioles, and if his father survives managing, that would make the second triumvirate of Ripkens in the same uniform on the same field.
"Since they put him at second base, they must be grooming him for the future," Bill Ripken said of his namesake. "Because they're going to need one of those, too."
The thought of young Bill brings a smile to his uncle Oliver. A breeze cooled his porch, which is on a side of his shingled bungalow. Clocks in the living room chime on the quarter hour.
"We always said, young Bill, if he couldn't make it in baseball he could be a comedian," said Oliver Ripken. "Young Bill is the comedian of the family. Anytime they have one of these banquets or something, he's there. If they got dancin', he's always right in the middle of everything. He's a jokester. If he can't make it up here now, maybe he'll be a comedian."
Oliver has a son and two daughters; Bill, a daughter. Cal Jr. and young Bill have another brother and a sister. But when it comes to baseball, Cal Jr. and young Bill are carrying on the Ripken tradition. Everyone in the family, including their grandmother, Clara Amelia Oliver Ripken, 89, who lives with Cal Sr. in Aberdeen, is proud of them, but no more than any of the other kids. Their parents didn't push Cal Jr. and young Bill into the game; they took it up naturally.
Cal Sr., on the road summers, rarely saw his boys play. Ollie and Bill, in fact, never did see Cal Jr. play until he got to Baltimore. They had full days, Ollie having followed their late father Arend by working for a retail lumber company, Bill in banking.
"I knew Calvin Jr. was rated one of the better prospects," said Bill Ripken, "because Tim Thompson, who I played with, is a scout for the Cardinals, and I used to see him occasionally. And Vi -- Violet, Calvin Jr.'s mother -- told me one day that Tim was there, and that's how come I knew what kind of a prospect he was."
"I like his attitude," Uncle Oliver said of Cal Jr. "I like his attitude toward the game, and I like his attitude toward people on the outside. He's very friendly. If someone wants to stop and talk to him, he'll talk. Last year I guess it was, we went to a restaurant, six of us, and some kid came up the walk and spotted him. So he had to stop and chat with him.
"He's easygoing. I never hear him cussin' like I did. I know he gets disturbed now and then with the umpires. My son said if his string ever gets broken" -- that's Cal Jr.'s consecutive innings streak -- "it's going to be because one of these umpires throws him out of a game for complaining about balls and strikes. But somebody said, no umpire wants to be the first one to do it."
If one of them does, Ollie probably will have, as he puts it, "a few comments." He had "a few comments" after McGregor gave up a grand slam recently to Wade Boggs. He'll be listening -- he even picked up some of Cal Jr.'s games when he played at Rochester; they'd fade in and out. He listened on radio when brother Bill came to Baltimore to play the International League Orioles when he was with the Montreal Royals. Happily rooted, Oliver Ripken keeps connected to his family partly through baseball voices in the night.
"It's pretty quiet," he said of his crossroads town of Perryman, tucked away near the backside of Chesapeake Bay. "But like every other place, it gets a little rowdy at night, with people runnin' up and down the roads too fast." But with his "little headset that tunes out everything," he hears what he wants -- the games.
Bill, too, loves the country solitude, and the freedom he didn't feel riding buses in the minors. What turned him in the direction of banking was a backbreaker of a league that stretched across Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. The Three-I League.
"You get on in the morning and you travel all the way across the country to Waterloo, Iowa," he said. "Get there like 5 o'clock in the evening. You know, I can't think of the town in Illinois that I played in." He took a Rand McNally Road Atlas from his office bookcase and opened to Illinois.
"This gets me so upset at times. In the league were Terre Haute, Davenport . . . . This was a bus league, and I'm talking about the shortened school bus, not the nice bus you get on today with the nice seats. Long ride."
He ran his finger across Illinois. "You'd think I'd have to recall the name of the bloomin' place after stayin' there."
Montreal he could never forget -- he had been a promising substitute. On that club in '49 were Sam Jethroe, Al Gionfriddo ("living off a catch he made on Joe DiMaggio") and the likes of Chico Carrasquel and Cal Abrams. The best Rickey could do with Ripken the next winter was persuade him to come up to Ebbets Field for a visit.
So Bill and an uncle drove up and spent the day with Rickey. And that night, the Dodgers were playing and Bill wanted his uncle to see them, and so they stayed even though that would make it "a long day." He looked to the outfield -- Duke Snider was in center, Carl Furillo was in right, "but if you remember, the Dodgers always had trouble finding a left fielder." It might have been him, but he said he never had regrets after leaving Brooklyn that night, to make the long drive home to be at work in the bank in the morning.
"Well, here it is, right in front of me," he said, finding the town he played in in the Three-I League. "Danville."
Cal Sr. took to the towns better than he, and all that experience Cal Sr. has behind him, Bill figures, should help him now during the Orioles' bad times. "He's been around the organization long enough that he understands the ups and downs, and how you gotta go with 'em. How long Mr. Williams is going to go along, and Mr. Peters, that's the question.
"Of course, I say he has one thing in his favor. He did not take a ball club expected to perform and go to the top, which is better than if he took a winning ball club and they lost. So I would think they would give him another year. I think most people express that attitude. I think they all feel the way I feel, that you can't prove anything in a given year. Fact is, two years may not be sufficient.
"I just hope the young pitchers who are with him now take a different look come next year."
Oliver said, "I don't think they have any complaints against him. I think they see the light -- what's wrong with the club. These long-term contracts, they foul the whole game up. If there's any way things can be smoothed out, he will. Thirty years ought to give you some experience in the thing. If he gets the pitching, you'll see it smoothed out some. But pitching, that's one thing you gotta have."