FAMILY TIES : Around Ballpark, Cal Ripken's Boys Are Just Players

Times Staff Writer

The Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse, transformed into a room full of Ripkens this spring, could almost have served as a surrogate living room to a family whose home often has been whatever ballpark they happened to visit.

In one corner sat Cal Jr., slowly pulling on his socks and trying to ignore younger brother Billy, who seemed to be thoroughly breaking in a new glove. And off in the other room was Cal Ripken Sr., father to the two players and the Orioles' new manager, planning the daily schedule.

They emerged at about the same time one morning and, all three smiling, headed out to the field, where they really feel at home.

What might to some be a potentially uncomfortable situation seemed completely natural to the Ripkens. It was a new situation, to be sure, but it was undoubtedly the way they envisioned it back when the Ripken boys grew up at ballparks from Aberdeen, S.D., to Asheville, N.C., watching their dad work as a minor league manager and later as a major league coach.

After waiting three decades, Cal Sr., 51, finally is the manager of the Orioles, the organization for which he has worked as a player and coach his entire adult life.

This also will be the first time he will manage Cal Jr., 26, the club's All-Star shortstop. And, during spring training, he also was boss in more ways than one to Billy, 22, who was competing for the second base spot.

Unfortunately for Billy, 22, he won't be with the club on opening day. He was optioned Monday to Rochester of the Triple-A International League.

"There was no father-son to it," Billy said. "He said five words to me: 'We are sending you out.' "

Cal Sr. said: "I told Billy the same thing I've been telling kids for years, 'We're doing what's best for you and the team.' "

Although he said that family ties are the last thing from his mind on the field, Cal Sr. had to admit that this spring was something special. And Cal Jr., less stoic than his father, compared what it has been like this spring to what it might be like when Billy sticks in the majors. "This allowed the three of us the opportunity to work together and just be together," Cal Jr. said. "It'd be nice to turn double plays with Billy someday, and I already know what's it's like having my dad around as a coach. Maybe it will change now that he's the manager, but I don't think so. We're all professionals here."

Being a Ripken means always acting in a professional manner, something that Cal Sr. expected from his kids even when they had not yet turned pro.

The family slogan, which Cal Sr. told his sons as soon as they were old enough to understand, was this: There's no time to play on the baseball field.

That comes across as a paradox but what Cal Sr. means is that the only game you should be playing is baseball. A sure way to crack Cal Sr.'s stoic facade and send him into a rage is to mess around when there's work to do on the field.

This spring, Baltimore has had a lot to work on. The Orioles, proud practitioners of fundamentally sound baseball and strong pitching, unraveled last season and wound up in last place in the American League East.

If that doesn't heap enough pressure on the squared shoulders of the senior Ripken, who has only a one-year contract, there is the additional attention drawn to the family connection.

"The media has made me conscious of the bloodline part of it," Cal Sr. said. "But I treat Cal like any other player. Actually, I believe that I'm a parent to 24 other players.

"Back when I was in the minors, when I took 21 kids to a city, I was their father, their guidance counselor, a lot of things to them. That's the way I still see it. We know our jobs and the family thing doesn't interfere."

Ripken says it so emphatically and with a such a stern look that you believe that it is not just an effort at masking familial pride or prejudice.

Explained Cal Jr., who has shared the same clubhouse with his father, then a coach, for the last seven seasons: "I know it seems cold-hearted, somewhat, because we are father and son. But that's the way it has to be."

That is the way everything must be with Cal Sr., who admits he sees things in black and white and purposely avoids gray areas.

The elder Ripken talks in a series of homilies and epigrams that sometimes makes his wife, Vi, and four kids--daughter Ellen, 29; Cal Jr., 26; Fred, 25, and Billy--snicker to themselves. Sometimes, Cal Sr. will combine the cliches in mystifying ways, as he did when talking with a reporter recently:

"That was water over the dam that we couldn't get to until we crossed the bridge."

Hank Peters, Baltimore's general manager, says he doesn't think Ripken has many hobbies besides baseball. The guys who clean up the Orioles' clubhouse probably wish he did. Cal Sr. has been known to hang around the clubhouse, in uniform, for hours after games.

"Down in spring training, people used to shake their heads at me," Cal Sr. said. "They'd ask, 'Are you going to sleep in that damn uniform?' "

Not only does Ripken talk and act like a career baseball man, he looks the part, too.

Leaning against the batting cage before an early spring game, Cal Sr. seemed something out of a Hemingway novel. He has a trim body, leathery face and chain-smokes non-filtered cigarettes down so close to his fingers that his finger tips have a perpetual brown stain.

It is a tough, weathered look, perhaps developed from years on the road in the bushes and the big leagues.

Cal Jr. remembers how his mother would load the kids and the family's belongings into the station wagon each summer and drive to wherever Cal Sr. was coaching. All told, Cal Sr. made stops in 15 cities, most not big enough to deserve that designation.

"Before we were old enough to go to school, we'd follow him wherever he'd go," Cal Jr. said. "But a typical summer was when we'd get out of school and my mom would drive us across the country to Dad. One of the reasons we're such a close family is that when you went to these places, you didn't know anybody else, so you spent a lot of time together."

Or you hung out at the ballpark, which was favorite of both Cal Jr. and Billy. Fred, the middle Ripken boy, turned his interest to cars and later became a mechanic.

Even when Cal Sr. settled in Baltimore as a third base coach and the boys grew older, they still frequented the stadium. It was a way to see their dad, who traveled half the year, and a practical library of baseball knowledge.

"My only rule was that they put on a uniform and not bother the players on the field before the game," Cal Sr. said. "Billy would stand out by the warning tracks and nothing happened there, so he'd wander in and take fly balls. He was real little then, so I'd have to tell him to get back. Cal was in high school (during his Baltimore years) and the players would let him take infield practice at shortstop."

Said Cal Jr.: "I couldn't get enough of the ballpark, especially the minor league parks when I was a kid. Every little kid wants to be a baseball player, doesn't he? Fortunately, I had the ability and the desire. And I had ways of finding out the right information. I could go up to Doug DeCinces or Al Bumbry and get tips. Then, I'd go back to my dad and ask if these guys were right. He'd be the final judge."

Because of his job, that was about all the help Cal Sr. could give either of his sons. Cal Sr. emphatically says that he had little to do with either of his sons' development as baseball players.

"The few times I saw (Cal Jr.) in high school--and it would just be for three or four innings before I had to go to the park--the statement came out in the stands, 'Well, he oughta be a good player, 'cause his dad works with him every day.' I didn't want to hear that because it was untrue. He did it on his own. After that, I'd watch the game from farther away so I wouldn't have to hear that."

The Ripken boys maintain that their father had a bigger impact on their development in sports than the old man lets on.

Cal Jr. says his father was strict but fair.

"The only time he coached me was on a youth soccer team," Cal Jr. said. "Sometimes, I'd stray or go mess around during practice and, right in front of everybody, he'd lay into me. But he did the same thing to anyone else who caused problems."

The season hasn't started yet, so Cal Sr. hasn't had many reasons or opportunities to chew out Cal Jr., who knows how to agitate his father.

He often turns up the bill of his cap and yanks it sideways, prompting the elder Ripken to scold him for not acting professionally. During a photo session with a local newspaper, the young Ripkens playfully disheveled Cal Sr.'s uniform, which genuinely angered him.

"My dad really loves the game," said Cal Jr., asked to explain his father's quirks. "He is very disciplined and serious about the Baltimore Orioles. He's a true Oriole. He's been in this organization his whole career.

"He can be very vocal, and very hard on his players. He expects everyone to approach the job the same way he approaches it. I have the advantage on some of the other guys on the team. I know what he's like."

Cal Jr. says he had noticed no difference in his father since he's switched from coach to manager. But the elder Ripken says he will be more vocal and take charge more than when he was in a supporting role.

"We got media here right now that are trying to figure me out," Ripken said. "I've been up here 11 years as a coach, and everybody says how quiet and serious I was, that I never said a word. Well, it wasn't my job to say anything. It wasn't my club."

It's his club now, and Ripken no longer has to keep whatever opinions he has to himself. Many thought Ripken would replace Earl Weaver back in 1983, but Peters and owner Edward Bennet Williams chose Joe Altobelli.

Two years ago, when the job was open again, Peters wanted Ripken but Williams brought back Weaver. That turned out to be a disaster. With a month remaining last season, Weaver resigned and a patient Ripken finally had made it to the top of the only organization for which he has worked.

Said Ripken: "The question has been thrown to me: Are you going to manage like Earl? Well, I can't be Earl Weaver. I can't be Joe Altobelli. It's my personality that comes out with this ballclub. My personality is reflected in every club I've managed."

Added Cal Jr.: "My dad's more in his element now. He's a born leader. I don't expect him to change at all. But the fact remains we are father and son. We'll maintain a father-son relationship but not necessarily on the field."

With the Ripkens, home always has been where the diamond is.

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