At Rochester in '81, heads-up prospect

His first hit screamed out of the park, a fastball coming and going. Next time up, he guessed curve, and tagged that offering, too. On the Rochester bench, awaiting a third look at the same pitcher, the youngster confided to his manager: "He'll probably throw his slider now - but I'll bet he brushes me back first."

Sure enough, he read the pitcher's mind. Cue the duster, then the slider. As Cal Ripken trotted around the bases for the third time on April 27, 1981, his skipper scrawled a note to the Orioles' brass.

"Can't miss," was all it said.

Ripken would play 114 games for the Red Wings before being called up to the major leagues, a yeomanlike on-deck performance that would set the table for the type of baseball he would play for the next 19 years. At Triple-A Rochester, he started every game, hit 23 home runs and batted a respectable .288.

The International League, then the playpen of comers like Wade Boggs and Brett Butler, named third baseman Ripken its Rookie of the Year. But not MVP, an honor that went to Butler.

"Even in the minors, you wouldn't leave the park in awe of how spectacular Cal was," said Brooks Carey, one of his roommates in the bush leagues. "Despite the record numbers he has put up, I think people respect Cal more for how he's gone about his business than for what he has done."

On the field, he snooped around in hitters' minds. "He had this knack of reading the batters, and always being in the right spots," said Dave Huppert, a Rochester catcher. "Cal had great range and a good arm. But mostly, he was just a very headsy ballplayer."

At the plate, he hit when it mattered: Ripken's 75 RBIs led the club. His was the highest batting average of the regulars, and he led Rochester in every offensive category except triples. Even at a young age, he was a tortoise on the bases.

He had stamina, though. In April, the Red Wings went to Pawtucket, R.I., for what is still professional baseball's longest game. Ripken played all 33 innings (the game was suspended after 32 innings, then completed two months later), going 2-for-13 in a 3-2 loss.

At Rochester, Ripken's work ethic showed what was to come. It shaped what was to come. During the summer of '81, on the stifling fields of Triple-A ballparks, the Iron Man was being forged.

"Those were great moments," Ripken said recently. "Nothing's for sure in the minor leagues; we were all trying to go up the ladder, using each other as support. I remember the 10-, 12- and 14-hour rides in the back of the bus, where all we'd talk was baseball. We'd evaluate what had happened [last game], and dream a little bit.

"Some of us just couldn't get enough baseball."

Immersed in his trade, Ripken toiled, tinkered, thrived. At 20, he was a fledgling among the Red Wings, a second-round draft pick blessed with a lofty name who behaved less like a hot shot than a free agent with something to prove.

"Even then, he got everything he could out of himself, which was unusual for a young guy," said Don Welchel, a pitcher at Rochester. "A lot of high draftees try to cruise through the minors, sitting on what they did in high school. Cal never did that."

Ripken's home run "hat trick" convinced Rochester manager Doc Edwards that his brain overshadowed his brawn.

"Sure, he had the giddyap in his bat," said Edwards. "But what a feel he had for what was going on at the plate. Look some players in the eye, and you know their computer is off. When I looked at Cal, I could see him analyzing the count, organizing the data."

But when Ripken did guess wrong, everyone scattered. Like the time he struck out with a runner on third base. Furious, he stormed back to the bench. Off came the helmet. Down came the bat. The headgear split in two.

"He had a temper back then," Brooks Carey said. "Nowadays, when he makes an out, he puts his bat in the bat box and places his helmet down nicely, like a professional is supposed to do.

"Well, Cal wasn't always like that."

Ripken threw some AAA-sized tantrums in Rochester, said Carey: "If he didn't get a base hit, he wasn't a happy camper. There were times we had to clear the dugout because he'd toss a bat, or throw something.

"There were weeks, even months when he expected to hit 1.000. He wanted absolute perfection."

Teammates sometimes bore the brunt of his frustrations. Retired on a groundout, Ripken sulked. "What's [the pitcher] throwing?" outfielder Dallas Williams asked.

Ripken exploded. "He got so mad, I thought he wanted to fight me," said Williams. "I told him, 'Hey, lighten up, dude.'

"He apologized later. But that was Cal. Every time he made an out, he was [mad]."

Or blew a layup. Or missed a dunk. Which wasn't often, said colleagues who played pickup basketball games with Ripken.

"Remember the movie, White Men Can't Jump? That wasn't Cal. He could jump, shoot, do it all," said Willie Royster, ex-Orioles farmhand.

"Everything he played was serious business. And the whole time he had that look in his eyes, like he'd kill you. He was no-nonsense, a chip of his dad's block."

Ripken's father, Cal Sr., was the Orioles' third base coach who would later manage his son in the majors.

Intensity aside, Ripken took part in clubhouse chicanery, said Royster: "I remember when he nailed someone's dress shoes to the floor."

A pet prank involved either shoe polish or shaving cream, and the clubhouse pay phone. "They'd 'paint' the receiver, then go into the manager's office and dial the number," pitcher Mike Boddicker said. New arrivals were Ripken's favorite marks.

Ripken could pull a fast one in the locker room as well as at the plate, said Edwards, the manager.

"There was a water fight after one game, and Cal had gotten the batboy good. He knew the kid would be waiting, with a bucket of water, when he left the clubhouse," Edwards said. So Ripken put on the batboy's street clothes, stepped outside and got doused. Ripken simply changed into his own attire. The kid went home in wet duds.

"The imagination behind that one was awesome," Edwards said.

Reminded of those times, Ripken smiled. "I was always most comfortable in the locker room," he said.

"If he didn't have anything to do, Cal would start picking on people," said Floyd Rayford, a sidekick in Triple-A and the big leagues. "Other guys could sit at their locker for an hour, playing cards or listening to music. Not Cal. He would be headlocking somebody, or trying to prove who could hit whom the hardest in the ribs, chest or neck.

"He just couldn't spend time doing nothing."

Ask Dan Logan, Rochester's big first baseman. "We'd come into the clubhouse from practice, dead tired, and Cal would be all over me, wrestling, like a kid who needed to be on Ritalin," said the 6-foot-6 Logan. "On the field, he was all business. But he had a kid's mentality until the first pitch was thrown."

Woe to those who passed by their digs, said Carey, his roommate. "You'd have to wrestle your way into, and out of, our room. And he'd try to beat you to the point where you were really [ticked] off.

"I don't recall having a lot of visitors, and I swear it's because guys knew if they came inside, there would be some physical activity there."

If high jinks were part of his lifestyle, high living was not. "There was a place in Rochester called The Garage Door, which had the best [chicken] wings in the world - but you never saw Cal there," said Rayford, another bunkmate. "He didn't go out much, which made him the greatest roomie I ever had.

"Whenever my [first] wife called, Cal would be there to say, 'Rafe's sleeping,' when I was really way over on the other side of town."

When Ripken needed a favor, Rayford obliged. One step from the majors, Ripken found himself hamstrung by his manager's soft lobs in batting practice, and it was driving him nuts.

"Cal asked if I'd come out early and throw to him," said Rayford. Day after day, for two hours before practice, they plugged away - Rayford pitching, Ripken swinging, Rayford ducking.

"He had a great year, thanks to me," Rayford said.

Ripken arrived early at the park, and stayed late. "He was a yard rat, with a strong routine, especially for a youngster," said Mark Corey, a Red Wings outfielder. "That he would be called up was a foregone conclusion."

After games, Ripken and a gang of players, all single, would lounge in the Rochester clubhouse for hours, sharing baseball banter, a cooler filled with drinks and a bloated 4-foot bag of popcorn.

"We had to raid the concession stand for that," Ripken recalled. That '81 club was the last of his teams to hold those skull sessions, said Edwards, who still manages in the minors. "I loved to hear them talking about the game, every pitch, and what they'd done or should've done," he said.

Even now, players say, those confabs were magic, like the camaraderie around a campfire.

"We just sat around, shooting the bull," Logan said. "I learned more about hitting from Cal in those sessions than anywhere else."

And then Ripken was ... gone. Called up to Baltimore on Aug. 8.

"He probably doesn't remember whose roster spot he took - mine," said Wayne Krenchicki, sent to Rochester in a swap of third basemen. "Obviously, the Orioles knew what they were doing."

Twenty years later, Ripken recalls the moment he got the word.

"It was 2 a.m., and we'd just gotten off the bus from a game in Syracuse," he said. "Doc called me into his office and said, 'You're going up.'

"I said, 'See you later.' "

Edwards knew better. "I knew he wouldn't be back."

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.