Intense yet playful, Iron Man unlike any other

September 6th, 2020

On a November day in 1984, is sitting on a bullet train across from me and Baltimore Sun baseball writer Jim Henneman, somewhere outside Tokyo. He has known Henneman since childhood and trusts him like a member of his family.

This is a few weeks after the end of Ripken’s third full season with his hometown Orioles, and The Streak is years from becoming a thing. Nor had Ripken yet established himself as one of baseball’s best players and greatest ambassadors.

“I want to ask you guys something,” he said. “I read somewhere that Bill Anderson never turned down an autograph request. I just can’t believe that.”

That the autograph habits of a country music star would even come up seems strange. To Ripken, it was totally normal. He told us he’d made a habit of stopping outside the players parking lot at Memorial Stadium on Sunday afternoons to sign dozens of autographs. One day late in the season, he had someplace to be and did not stop to sign.

Instead, Ripken being Ripken, he had stopped anyway and passed out a stack of autographed photos while telling the fans, “I have to go. I’m sorry. I have to go.”

From somewhere back in the crowd, one voice shot up: “Yeah, sure, you’ve become just like all the others.”

Ripken remembered that the crowd had come to his defense, but weeks later, he was still bothered by the comment. Funny thing is, he was not angry.

At least he was not angry in the way a lot of the rest of us think of anger. He simply was puzzled, and analytical as always, still thinking about it. When I think about Cal Ripken Jr. these 36 years later, that conversation says so much about what made him great.

He was unlike any player I’ve covered in an assortment of ways. Here are my six takeaways of covering Ripken:

1) Preparation fanatic

He would get out to the field early, before batting practice, and take dozens of ground balls at shortstop. In doing so, as he would make throw after throw across the diamond, he could gauge how strong his arm was feeling that day, which assisted him in defensive positioning and knowing the throws he could and couldn’t make that day.

That care in his preparation became a hallmark of his 21 seasons in Baltimore. He would sit in on pitcher-catcher meetings to know pitches would be thrown in certain situations, and because of this, he could cheat a step or two to be in better position to field balls. He occasionally would call pitches by signing to the catcher what should be thrown. He was that attuned to how hitters were leaning, what they were looking for, etc.

He ate his pregame meal at the same time each day. He came to know certain foods as energy foods, those that would help him. In the Minor Leagues, his mother would stock his freezer with casseroles that he could heat and eat before going to the park.

2) Playfulness and competitiveness

One offseason an Orioles employee found the door to the home clubhouse blocked. When he pushed it open, he found Ripken and his brother Billy and an assortment of others engaged in a made-up hockey game (sort of) that left Cal with bloody gashes all over his arms.

He competed relentlessly. In everything. He would challenge teammates to footraces up the Metrodome steps. Or see who could hang from water pipes the longest.

Once during a rain delay, he was found in a tunnel behind the dugout at Camden Yards playing a fierce game of pickup baseball with a coffee can lid as a ball. Late on another night, he organized a game of baseball using balls of medical tape as the ball.

His offseason basketball games at his home gym became the stuff of legend because they got really noisy and borderline harrowing. One teammate blew out an Achilles tendon in one of those games.

When someone mentioned a hotshot basketball recruit the University of Maryland was going hard after, Ripken said: “That would be a mistake. I’ve played against him. He has no game.”

He was right.

3) The Streak

As The Streak stretched into the hundreds -- but not thousands of games -- I would brush by him in the clubhouse and mutter, “Take a day off. Jeez.”

And then at some point, some began to portray it as a negative, as a selfish act. Sometimes, he would sit for interviews and time how long it took the reporter to get around to asking about The Streak.

In the end, it should be seen as what it is: a herculean accomplishment that almost defies comprehension.

If he was once sensitive about it, he eventually become comfortable as the guy who played 2,632 consecutive games and smashed Lou Gehrig’s thought-to-be-unbreakable mark of 2,130. That mark stands as a legacy to his love of the sport, work ethic and toughness.

He played through all sorts of injuries, including a couple of serious ones that probably put the streak in jeopardy. One of those was a twisted ankle during an exhibition game at the Naval Academy prior to the 1985 season.

Ripken was meticulous about footwork and throwing motion, but he also threw his body around the field and was fearless in turning double plays at second.

And then there was the clubhouse horseplay. He would bound into the room and leap onto a teammate’s back and wrestle him to the ground. He was 6-4, 210 pounds and those were significant collisions with the floor.

4) The Streak should not overshadow his overall greatness.

This is the thing that gets lost amid talk of The Streak. Ripken was a 19-time All-Star and a two-time AL MVP. He had a .340 career OBP during 21 years. For 12 seasons between 1983 and 1994, he had a .350 OBP, .805 OPS and 121 OPS+.

Teammates marveled at every part of his game. He perfected a spin-and-throw move behind second base. He turned double plays almost effortlessly.

Offensively? As one teammate said, “He goes up there knowing the pitch he’s going to hit, and on two strikes, he’s talented enough to foul back pitch after pitch until he gets the one he’s looking for.”

5. Interviews

He would begin many interviews by asking the following: “What is it you’re trying to get me to say?” That’s unlike the standard, “What do you want to talk about?”

In that way, he would cut to the chase about why you were there. What exactly did you want from him? He would often not answer questions immediately.

Instead, he would go out for batting practice, and when he returned to the clubhouse, would summon a reporter back over and say, “Okay, here’s what I’ll say about that.”

In all our years together, we had one very unpleasant encounter. That was an off-the-record session in which he blistered the media for its portrayal of his buddy, Eddie Murray, another future Hall of Famer.

The depth of his bitterness was striking because he simply was not an angry person. Even in the wake of the firing of his dad, Cal Ripken Sr., as Orioles manager in 1988, he never revealed the depth of his anger, of which there was plenty.

6. Summer of ’95 when Cal Ripken Jr. saved baseball

By Opening Day 1995, Ripken was in a good place with The Streak. If others had a problem with it, that was their problem. So he did dozens of interviews, posed for photographs and signed autographs, hundreds and hundreds of them.

He would have fans line up before and after games, and he would sign endlessly, make small talk and give every kid a memory.

Ripken knew baseball had been badly damaged by the work stoppage that forced cancellation of the 1994 World Series and stretched into April of the following season.

What he did not know -- what he could not have known -- is that he would play a massive role in getting the sport back into the hearts and minds of fans.

His only goal he said was to make his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record a celebration of both himself and baseball. Sure, he knew he would be at the center of it all, but he wanted it to be about more than him.

By the time Sept. 6 -- the date he would break Gehrig’s record -- approached, his story had become one of the sweetest and most heartwarming in years.

Here was the hometown kid breaking the unbreakable record. The Orioles had outsmarted other teams when they took him in the second round of the 1978 Draft.

He was scouted by most teams as a pitcher, but the Orioles looked at his athleticism and his upbringing and thought he had the skills to be a star. While it was Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver who defied almost everyone in the organization by moving the big man to a position previously dominated by smallish light-hitting men, Weaver saw a potentially monstrous player at shortstop.

“Now, look, you’re not going to make any All-Star teams,” Weaver told him. “(Robin) Yount and (Alan) Trammell will be the All-Stars, but I think this is where you belong.”

By 1995, Ripken had punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame and become one of the great players in history. His success led other teams to try big men at shortstop. For instance, Alex Rodriguez.

Ripken couldn’t have scripted it better, with the countdown to Gehrig, the rounds and rounds of national television chats and finally that evening when his teammates pushed him out of the dugout and forced an impromptu victory lap around Camden Yards in which he high-fived fans, blew kisses and tapped his heart again and again.

When Camden Yards—the ballpark that spurred the retro park era—opened in 1992, Ripken had walked onto the field and uttered the greatest quote of his life.

“It feels like baseball has been played here."

He meant that Camden Yards was oozing with the history and romanticism we associate with baseball. But three years later was the night Camden Yards was truly christened. To visit the place after that with your kids meant pointing to the left side of the infield and saying, “That’s where Cal Ripken played.”

He was overwhelmed emotionally and spent physically that night, but by then he was aware that he had put an entire sport on his shoulders. Sometime after that, I ran into Ripken at an NBA game.

I implored him to come say hello to my two daughters, then four and nine. He approached them stuck out his hand and said hello. They looked away, smiling, unsure what to say.

He then got down on one knee, looked both of them in the eyes and pointed to his own eyes.

“When you shake someone’s hand, you look them in the eye, okay?” he said.

He made them practice it, too. I thanked him again and again for stopping by because by then he was attracting a crowd.

“Happy to do it,” he said.