Can this be Silent Cal, the man who sat at the corner locker for years without venturing an opinion?
Can this be Hold 'Em Cal, the ultracautious third base coach?
Can this be Coach Cal, the indefatigable fungo smasher and indestructible pitcher of extra batting practice for the lowest scrubs?
Can this be Big Rip, the baseball lifer who, a couple of times a season, would see ultraviolet over some poor umpire's innocent mistake and go utterly bonkers, screaming, "Let me at him," and dancing in little tippy-toe circles of rage until he was led away?
Can this be Cal the Elder, the modest dad who always tried to explain away the excellence of his son, Cal Jr., as though the boy's drive and poise bore no relation to any virtues within the father?
How strange, we all said, that such a remarkable son, such a leader with Hall of Fame practically written on his forehead, could come from such a blend-into-the-woodwork father.
When Cal Jr. said, dozens of times, "You don't really know my father. You don't see the man who raised me," nobody believed him. How nice of the kid to cover for his old man.
When you think back, it was curious that the son, even after he won the Most Valuable Player, even after he earned a million dollars a year, still treated his father with something more than respect. He treated Big Rip the way you behave around a man accustomed to authority.
Now, the mystery has been solved. Only to open up a new riddle.
How did a natural leader, a man who loves to talk your ear off, loves to run the ship, loves to make decisions--a man, for heaven's sake, who was a skipper in pro ball at age 25 and has almost a thousand minor league wins under his belt-keep himself hidden for almost 30 years?
Whether Cal Ripken Sr. proves to be a good major league manager is entirely a question for the future. Already answered, however, are the three knee-jerk doubts that immediately arose about Ripken. Would he possess enough presence to command his rich and famous players? Following Earl Weaver, would he seem capable enough for the job? And could he hold the public spotlight in a media age without embarrassing himself?
Were we wrong about this guy.
"People ask me why I talk so much now," said Ripken, who soon may compete with Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson and Whitey Herzog for the major league lead in quotes. "It wasn't my job to talk then. Now, it's my responsibility."
In among the million mandatory platitudes, Ripken sprinkles nuggets: "Eric Bell and John Habyan are knocking on the door of the starting rotation. Now, I have to find out if their knock is loud enough." "I wasn't a long time waiting. Just because I've been here 30 years doesn't mean I was waiting to manage for 30 years. I enjoyed every day I was a coach." "We might get the hell kicked out of us 10 straight games down here. But we're still going to get after this thing and get it right."
It's not Ripken's words, however, that are making an impact here. It is his actions and the force of the assumptions behind them. Ripken is going to find 24 men who will play baseball his way, even if big salaries have to be eaten, even if feelings have to be abused, even if the players he finally picks don't have the innate ability to be contenders this season.
"The last couple of years, all you heard was, 'We have the talent to win it all this year'," said coach Frank Robinson. "Cal hasn't said anything like that once. He says, 'We're going to play the game properly again.' That way the wins will come."
Nobody, at least so far, has gotten to the ballpark before Ripken or left later. Front office man Doug Melvin decided, just for a joke, that he'd come to Miami Stadium early in the morning, just so he could beat Ripken and needle the tough old coot. Melvin ambled into Ripken's office at 7:40 a.m.
Ripken was sitting behind his desk, in uniform. With his hat on.
Every day, the Orioles are on the field for four hours. "We aren't here to find out how quick we can get off the field and on the golf course," says Robinson.
"I want to get back that old frame of mind. I want to set a tone," said the manager. "I want 24 who want to work . . . I'm sick of watching us beat ourselves . . . I wanna see somebody come in and say, 'I'm gonna take this damn job and go about this job.' Ray Knight and Rick Burleson look like that kind."
With his sky-blue eyes and beak for a profile, with his perpetual cigarette and tobacco-yellowed fingers, the elder Ripken might as well walk around with a caption under him: Old School.
Starting Saturday afternoon, that old school was back in session. Just to refresh memories, to redefine the problem, the Orioles began just as they ended last season. The first Yankees batter of the exhibition season hit a homer on an 0-2 pitch from Mike Boddicker. Eddie Murray molested the first important ground ball, kicking it into right field. So much for balmy Florida illusions. This is a team that, over the final two months (14-42) of 1986, rendered one of the seminal give-up performances in recent times.
The Orioles have spent the winter trying to go from last place to a last stand. This year may be the final chance for a revival of baseball played in old Orioles fashion. And they know it.
If that is the case, then Cal Ripken Sr. is the proper man for what may be a suicide mission. "I've always been a take-charge guy," he said. Now, he's finally been put in charge of something.
If the floundering S.S. Baltimore is to be saved, no man is more likely to do it. And if the ship is destined to go down, no one else would stand taller as the last man on the bridge.