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.
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."
At Rochester in '81, heads-up prospect
Minors: Before graduating to the majors, 20-year-old Ripken was a student of the game as a Red Wing, earning high grades for consistency and intensity, but he was also a class clown.
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