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Baseball: Young Ripken hits his own mark with senior stretch at Gilman

BaseballRyan RipkenCollege SportsCollege BaseballSouth Carolina GamecocksBaltimore Orioles

After the Gilman School has its graduation next month, Ryan Ripken, the Greyhounds' two-sport star and son of Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame legend Cal Ripken Jr., will swap his father's fishbowl for one of his own making.

The third-generation member of Baltimore's First Family of Baseball and power forward on the Greyhounds' championship basketball squad will leave behind a city that adores his family and head to the University of South Carolina, where baseball players also are expected to be great and immortalized when they are.

The 6-foot-6 senior first baseman caught a glimpse of how highly those players are regarded at the Southeastern Conference school while on a recruiting visit last fall. That's when he learned that Scott Wingo, a key member of the Gamecocks' 2010-2011 NCAA Division I national championship teams, also was on campus.

Ripken was told that if the team's fans had known Wingo was there, he would have been mobbed. Instead, the school kept Wingo, now in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system, hidden for the weekend.

Ripken knows all too well about what such attention and name recognition can engender.

"There's definitely going to be a lot higher expectations," Ripken said. "A lot of comparisons … I try not to think about any of that, because who knows how I'm going to project out? I'm still a young kid, and to be honest, I'm just going to try to be myself down there."

Former Oriole Larry Sheets, now Gilman's baseball coach, said those expectations are all too real.

"It's not going to go away at the next level," Sheets said. "If he signs a professional contract, it's not going to go away, but one thing that is really good is how he handles it."

If Ripken has learned anything in his time at Gilman, it's the importance of being comfortable in his surroundings. Despite the microscope he and his Gamecocks teammates will be under, Ripken feels he'll do well at national powerhouse.

Part of that comfort stems from the team's commitment to him. As a junior, Ripken dropped from 205 pounds to 175 during a bout with mononucleosis. At the same time, Gilman struggled on the field after claiming the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference title the previous season.

Some teams doubted whether Ripken could get back to his previous form. When he did, South Carolina — which continued to recruit him throughout the illness — became an obvious college destination.

Still, the adjustment could prove difficult for Ripken, who began in Gilman's Lower School at age 6 and has grown to think of the school as a "second home."

"Everyone treats me the same, and that's what I want," Ripken said. "I just want people to treat me or like me for who I am, not whatever the last name is or who my father is."

As far as the baseball team is concerned, he's just Ryan, the first-baseman with a giant wingspan who hits in the three-hole and is one of the first off the bench to congratulate a teammate after a good play.

"He's an incredibly humble guy," said senior pitcher/third baseman Matt Collins. "His talents aren't his best attributes. It's his personality."

Sheets said Ryan — or Cal, who coaches the team as well — won't stand for any special treatment. Ryan admitted such situations exist, but he tries to avoid them.

"I don't want to be liked because they like my father," he said. "I like to build relationships with people based on how I treat them and how they like me as a person."

He's learned to remove himself from situations he deems insincere or contrived, but baseball diamonds provide little shelter from comparisons — however forced they are.

For one thing, Ryan bats and throws left-handed and his dad is a righty. Cal manned the left side of the infield, Ryan the right.

But the specter of the father looms large over the son.

At the plate, Ripken's approach seems to be one honed by a big leaguer. He understands how to hit, feasting on outside pitches he slaps into left field with regularity.

While he has yet to develop a power stroke at the plate, that could change as he adds bulk to his frame.

"I feel like I have to grow out — and grow into — my body," the admittedly lanky Ripken said. "My dad was a late bloomer. Hopefully, I'll be a late bloomer, too, and add more strength and size."

Outside the batter's box, Ripken is effective in the field, stretching his long limbs far from the bag to scoop up errant throws and contribute to Gilman's sound team defense.

As the top-seeded Greyhounds began their playoff quest last week, he and the other 10 seniors hopes to help pull the Greyhounds back to the heights they reached two years ago.

"Just as a senior, I feel I need to try to represent myself in a better way and encourage the young guys," Ripken said.

After his first season, in which Ripken was one of four freshmen on a team that went 3-16, the Greyhounds rebounded to go 27-5 in a championship run past Calvert Hall, breaking the Cardinals' five-year conference reign in the process.

He called the 2010 championship one of his best memories, one he and his teammates hope to recreate together this month.

"This year, the goal is to bring back the championship and get back to playing baseball the right way," Ripken said. "So far, we've done that, but it's a long season. We have to be playing our best ball in mid-May."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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