Counting down

The countdown sign in Aberdeen for Cal Ripken's streak. (Patrick Sandor, Baltimore Sun / August 31, 1995)

The runner, all 240 pounds of him, barreled toward second base with one thought in mind: break up the double play. Slide, schmide. He lowered his shoulder and struck the second baseman, a scrawny ninth-grader who flew up like a rag doll.

The kid fell in a lifeless heap. His baseball coach at Aberdeen High rushed out, fearing the worst. "I thought he was dead," the coach said. "I thought I'd find half of him in left field and the other half in center."

Then Cal Ripken's eyes fluttered open and a tiny voice gasped, "I'm OK, coach -- don't take me out!"

In 1975, Ripken didn't look much like Iron Man, though he certainly acted like him: By 14, he'd already developed a fierce competitiveness and a major-league stubborn streak that would carry him inexorably toward Lou Gehrig's major-league record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

He's expected to break that mark Wednesday, in a game against the California Angels at Camden Yards.

Born to a family whose Harford County roots reach back more than two centuries -- one of his mother's ancestors fought during the American Revolution -- Ripken hails from sturdy stock. From his father, a headstrong man of German and Irish descent, Ripken inherited an indomitable will and a passion for baseball: Cal Sr. spent more than half his life with the Orioles as player, coach and manager.

From his mother, a resourceful woman who raised four children, Ripken got a puckish sense of humor that has helped temper his perfectionism.

Ripken's private nature has made his early years a closed book to most baseball fans, who know him only from the start of his big-league career. But family, friends and former classmates say that the traits that would lead to The Streak began showing early in Ripken's life, when he was short, skinny and still known as Calvin.

'The kid had guts'

Twenty years later, the first man to knock Cal Ripken from a ballgame vividly recalls the play. It is, Steve Slagle says, the sweetest hit he ever made.

"It was the perfect hit, you know, one of those shots that you don't really feel," says Slagle, then a star at Elkton High. "I played college football, but I never hit anybody harder than [Ripken]. When it happened, our whole bench stood up and went, 'Wooooooo.'

"We still discuss 'The Hit' at class reunions."

Ripken was removed from the game, but cajoled his coach into letting him return an inning later under the re-entry rule. Even now, he's piqued that he had to leave the field at all.

"I just wanted a moment to catch my breath, but the decision wasn't up to me," Ripken says. "Who was I, a ninth-grader, to argue with my coach?"

That Ripken even wanted to stick it out surprised the man who nailed him.

"The kid had guts," Slagle says. "Give the Iron Man credit, he's one tough person.

"Hey, tell Cal no hard feelings, OK? Tell him I feel bad about it at 37 -- but I didn't at 16."

Year of the Shortstop

Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. was born Aug. 24, 1960, at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace. Fifty miles away at Memorial Stadium, the Orioles were pounding the Detroit Tigers, 9-2. It was, in retrospect, The Year of the Shortstop for Baltimore: The Orioles' Ron Hansen earned American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Vi Ripken's earliest recollections of her firstborn son: "A big, full-faced kid with no wrinkles. He was real fair and baldheaded, and he looked a couple months old."

Ripken's father, Cal Sr., a catcher and Orioles farmhand, got the news on the road in Topeka, Kan. The telegram said his son weighed 9 pounds, 2 1/2 ounces, prompting Cal Sr.'s teammate, 19-year-old Boog Powell, to quip, "He must have been born with his catcher's gear on."

From the start, Ripken's movements bore watching.

"Junior always crawled backwards, never forwards," his mother says. "I kept finding him under furniture. He'd back under there and not be able to get out."

He was a relentless climber, scrambling onto tables and chairs to explore new plateaus. Once, Ripken shinnied up a desk, ingested some medicine and was rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped. "I'll be good! I'll be good!" he hollered as doctors hovered over the 18-month-old in the emergency room.

One Christmas, Ripken received a bat and ball and began to mimic his father's swing. Vi's eyes darted from her son's stroke to her favorite china; she replaced the ball with rolled-up socks.

Every spring, she shooed her brood outside. Ripken and his siblings -- older sister Elly and younger brothers Fred and Bill -- played in the pastures and woods outside the modest, split-level, three-bedroom home where their parents still live. Balls of all sizes dotted the lawn. Cal Sr. replaced many a garage window without a fuss.

"Dad only got mad if we broke windows from the inside out, which meant we were doing something we shouldn't have," Fred Ripken says.

"We'd get up every day and play games," Fred says. "If you didn't feel good, tough, you still played. I never remember Cal getting sick, or hurt, and not playing. When he got old enough, a sprained ankle might have gotten him out of cutting the grass, but not out of playing ball."

Baseball fundamentals, the kids got from their father. Cal Sr. hit them ground balls that bounced off their arms, legs and chest. Complaints were dismissed.

"The ball only weighs 5 1/4 ounces," he'd say. "How much can it hurt?"

Those workouts were "almost militaristic," Cal Jr. says. "Dad taught us how to do something right, and then he'd expect us to do it that way every time.

"He didn't show much emotion, but you knew he was proud of you by the way he shook your hand or said, 'Nice job.' "

Cal Sr. thrived on work: In the minors, he'd offered to catch three straight doubleheaders -- six games in three days. He ignored pain, on and off the field. A short, wiry bantam of a man, Cal Sr. has been known to smoke a Lucky Strike cigarette until it disappears completely, leaving flecks of burning ash on his lower lip.

"His actions spoke a lot louder than his words," Cal Jr. says.

The Ripken kids were weaned on such stoicism. "Cal's work ethic, he got from Dad," Bill Ripken says.

Summers were spent in whatever dusty minor-league town Cal Sr. was stationed as player or manager -- from Aberdeen, S.D., to Asheville, N.C. Each year, Vi packed the kids into the family's old Mercury and rattled off to the boonies. Elmira, N.Y. . . . Appleton, Wis. . . . En route, they played license-plate games. Cal Jr. won often.

To muffle her charges at bedtime on the road, Vi promised a penny to the quietest child.

"Calvin saw it as a challenge -- so he always won," his sister, Elly, says. "He kept all the pennies, too.

"I always knew he'd be rich."

Whatever the town, the ballpark was baby sitter. Ripken watched game after game on sultry nights, toddling along beside his father in the clubhouse afterward. Players rubbed his head and called him "Little Rip."

By first grade, he'd seen hundreds of contests, asked a zillion baseball questions and soaked up many subtleties of the game.

On the first day of school, however, he balked. Also the second. And the third. In fact, Ripken tried to run away from Bakerfield Elementary every day for nearly a month.

"He was a rascal, I'm telling you," says Olga Mapp Stansbury, who taught at the school. "When his parents dropped him off, he'd refuse to get out of the car. Then, as soon as we got ahold of him, they'd take off. If we didn't have a good, firm hold, he'd run."

Where?

"Home," Ripken says. "That was my intent. I knew how to get there, and it wasn't that far."

Why?

"Separation anxiety," he says. "Our family was close, and it was traumatic for me to be away from them."

Occasionally, Ripken says, he'd fool school officials by going to class and sitting quietly until the teacher left the room. "Then I'd -- open the closet, get my book bag and take off."

Ripken's stubbornness continued for weeks, Mrs. Stansbury says. "Finally I scooped him up, put him on my hip and carried him to his classroom. He was kicking and screaming, 'I don't want to go in there!'

"I said, 'You get in that room, and you stay there!'

"He was horrible at first, but a good kid once he settled down.

"Yes, we have fond memories of Cal."

The shenanigans stopped once Ripken learned his teacher liked sports. One day, he placed a baseball, freshly signed by all of the 1966 world champion Orioles, on Jo Ann Lindenstruth's desk -- an "apple" for the teacher.

"This is for you," he declared.

"It's a lovely ball, Calvin," she said. "Why don't you share it with the class for show-and-tell?"

Later, she returned the ball. Ripken took it, frowning.

The next day, he marched into class, planted the same ball on her desk and announced, "I said this ball is for you, and I meant it.' "

"I still have that ball," Mrs. Lindenstruth says.

Ask Mildred Tull, Ripken's second-grade teacher, and she'll dig out his faded class picture. He's the one in the bow tie. Calvin Ripken always wore a bow tie to school. "A fine, little gentleman," she says -- so long as you didn't try to cross him on the playground.

"He was a competitive child," Mrs. Tull recalls. "At recess, we played baseball, and all the children lined up to hit. To keep his turn [at bat], Calvin would stand up there and hit foul balls, sometimes for 15 minutes. Finally, I had to call him out."

Ripken reacted like a pint-sized Earl Weaver.

"He kicked the ground, stirred up dust and stormed off the playground," says Mrs. Tull. "I can still see him looking back to shout, 'And another thing -- you don't even know how to umpire!' "

Leading the team

So Ripken joined Little League.

"We were 8-0, thanks to Calvin," says Barbara Blattner, whose late husband, Ralph, managed the Aberdeen Angels. "Of course, he'd had the advantage of having gone to spring training. Not many 8-year-olds can say that."

It was Little League where Vi Ripken noticed the depth of her son's interest: "While other kids on the bench elbowed each other and horsed around, Junior sat at the end, watching the pitcher, waiting to hit, absorbed in the game."

Idleness rankled Ripken. Once, while he was recovering from the mumps, his mother took him to see his team play. Big mistake. Ripken begged to leave. Why stay if you can't play?

He also played youth league basketball. In a two-point Aberdeen victory over rival Bel Air, 11-year-old Ripken scored all 24 of his team's points.

"He was always playing something, and he always had to win," Fred Ripken says. "You did not want to be on Cal's team and make a mistake that cost the game. If you made the mistake that ended the game, it was all your fault, even if he'd made five mistakes before that."

Cal's competitive streak sometimes caused havoc at home, Fred says.

"Once, Elly, Bill and myself got fed up and refused to include him in any games we played. That lasted a week. He got the message and changed his ways -- for a game or two. Then it was business as usual."

Ripken already had shaped his philosophy: (1) Win at all costs; and (2) If at first you don't succeed, play best-of-three. Or five. Or seven.

When the kids played canasta, Fred Ripken recalls, "Cal would ** count his points -- 'Ten . . . 20 . . . 30 . . . 100' -- and put his cards back in the deck real quick, so nobody could see them."

"He wasn't above cheating a little to come out victorious, whether he was playing cards or jacks," Vi Ripken says. "He turned on that killer instinct in every game, even Monopoly."

When no one was looking, Ripken would steal orange $500 bills from the bank.

"He had to have Boardwalk, Park Place and all the hotels," his mother says. "He'd wipe us out."

And gloat about it. But he only crowed at home, never in public.

"Calvin pushed himself to the limit, but he did it quietly," says Emma Hartwell, his fifth-grade teacher at Halls Crossroads Elementary. "He was a good role model."

The next year, Ripken was named captain of the school's safety patrol and began whipping his gym teacher, Gary Ritz, in table tennis.

"He learned how to hit the edge of the table so you couldn't return the ball," says Mr. Ritz. "His athleticism was disciplined even then."

Ripken sharpened his baseball skills in summer, shagging flies in minor-league parks beside future major-leaguers such as Doug DeCinces, Bobby Grich and Al Bumbry.

Even then, Ripken was loath to take a day off.

"Junior would come to the ballpark with a cold, a sprained ankle or a jammed something-or-other," Cal Sr. says. Scrapes and pains he got playing ball in the backyard with his brother Bill.

"Our bat was a cut-off broomstick," Bill Ripken says. "The ball was a sock wrapped in athletic tape."

Crude props didn't change the results, Bill says: "Cal usually won."

Wearing the uniform

In Asheville, the Orioles' Double-A affiliate, 11-year-old Ripken graduated from bleachers to ball field. He made road trips, sat in the dugout, wore the team uniform.

"I remember the way Cal put on that uniform -- exactly as his dad did it," says DeCinces, who played in Asheville in 1972. "When I put on my socks differently, he looked at me and said, 'Why are you doing it that way?'

"Like, if it wasn't the way his dad did it, it must not be right."

DeCinces, an infielder, took Ripken in tow. Showed him how to turn double plays and read hitters.

"Cal sponged up everything," DeCinces says. "He was a kid with some tools but, more than anything, a mental intuitiveness and desire. He wanted to learn."

He wanted to grow.

At 5 feet 6 and 130 pounds, Ripken hardly looked the part of baseball savior upon entering Aberdeen High.

"All I kept hearing was, 'Calvin Ripken will lead us to great things,' " says Don Morrison, then Aberdeen's baseball coach.

What he got was a skinny 14-year-old who failed to finish a mandatory six-minute mile run on the first day of spring practice.

Midway through the run, says Morrison, "this little kid with a red face and high-pitched voice said, 'Coach, I just can't make it -- can I come back tomorrow?' "

And the coach thought: This is the guy who's going to take us to great heights?

The next day, Ripken completed the mile -- in 5 1/2 minutes.

He made varsity as a freshman, batted ninth and took his lumps, hitting half his weight (.065). Defense was Ripken's forte.

"He sucked up everything that was hit to him," Morrison says. "It was like having your catcher on the field."

Thereafter, Ripken retreated to the batting cage in his back yard, where he spent countless hours fighting off the 80-mph offerings of a cranky old pitching machine his father had scrounged from the Orioles.

In time, Ripken was lining the ball back down the machine's gullet.

He improved steadily. As a senior, he batted cleanup, hit a team-high .492 and struck out just four times, including three in one contest -- the only complete high school game his well-traveled father ever witnessed.

Ripken also made an error that day. "I was trying to show off," he says.

As a high school junior, Ripken had been approached about pitching. Would he mind throwing a game or two, in a pinch?

Cal Ripken? Dabble in baseball? He became a staff ace and won 14 games, including a no-hitter and two one-hitters. At Aberdeen, his teams went 44-33, and won a state title in 1978.

Teammates say he never threw a pitch without first checking the location of all his fielders -- unusual for high school.

"To Cal, playing baseball was like playing chess," says infielder David Easter. "He had to know where every piece was."

He also was attuned to the weather. In the state Class A championship game, with Aberdeen losing and a storm brewing, Ripken checked the sky and hit the brakes. Eight times he threw to first base, to check a runner who had no intention of stealing. The stall worked. Rain ended the game, which was replayed in its entirety, going to Aberdeen, 7-2.

Ripken struck out 17 that day, including the opposing catcher who'd rattled Aberdeen's hitters by yelling "SWING!" on every pitch. When the catcher came to the plate, Ripken deliberately telegraphed his tactics. "Nothing but fastballs," he muttered, loud enough for the batter to hear.

The catcher went down on three pitches.

Ripken lives for moments like that.

"He was always looking to compete in something, even if it was seeing who could throw rocks closest to a tree," says Richard Parrish, a high school friend.

On rainy days, Ripken and his pals withdrew to Cal's bedroom, where they amused themselves hitting crumpled paper balls off the walls with 12-inch Oriole souvenir bats. Ripken made sure they kept score.

The athletic crowd

Ripken moved with a middle-class crowd, many of them athletes: guys who liked pizza, loud music and cars, guys who spent their evenings cruising around Aberdeen, talking and laughing and singing off-key until their gas tanks hit "E" or midnight approached, whichever came first.

Ripken's car was a green, gas-eating '67 Chevy Caprice dubbed "The Frog."

He and his friends -- boys and girls -- liked to gather in clearings along secluded back roads, hangouts with cryptic names such as "Goatman's" and "The Pits," to build bonfires, eat burgers and drink beer. Pretty tame fare for the '70s, Ripken's acquaintances say.

"The kids we associated with were drug-free," says classmate Ralph Baker, now a major in the Army. "Our idea of a good time was a six-pack and a loud night at Goatman's, listening to somebody's car stereo."

Ripken would have a brew or two, but seldom more, friends say.

"Cal would drink some with the crowd, but I never saw him drunk," says a former teammate, Sgt. John "Boe" Kowalewski of the Aberdeen Police Department. "Nothing we did would have made the National Enquirer. Cal set himself up as an All-American boy at a young age."

Toward midnight, the gang would pile into The Frog in search of chow, stopping at closing time at a fast-food joint where an employee -- a classmate of Ripken's -- often sneaked a bucket of leftover chicken out the back door.

Ripken never missed his 12 o'clock curfew without reason. Once, he was late because of . . . . a flat tire?

"Ah, that was our story," Sgt. Kowalewski says. "For effect, we rubbed our hands and arms over the tires until they were black."

Ripken's turf reached beyond the ball field. In his quest to be best, he also left his mark on the highway, say those who rode with him.

"Cal had a lead foot," Sgt. Kowalewski says. "Yeah, we did a little drag racing down Route 40."

Such as the Saturday night showdown with another Aberdeen student who'd been boasting in school about his new car, a Plymouth Duster. Hottest thing on wheels, he said. Couldn't be beat.

The white Duster was purring at a stoplight when The Frog slid up beside it. The drivers exchanged glances and revved their engines.

"All of a sudden, they both took off," says Mr. Parrish, who witnessed the race. "Cal just blew him away.

"It was the talk of the school on Monday morning."

A focused student

Academics came easily to Ripken. Friends recall his concentration and say he was so tightly focused in class that he seldom studied. A member of the National Honor Society, he finished high school with a 3.28 grade-point average, graduating 41st in a class of 320.

Absences were rare: Ripken missed 16 1/2 days in four years of high school. Mathematics was his forte; he earned an "A" in Advanced Math, Aberdeen's most demanding course.

"Math was definitive, like baseball," he says. "There are no abstracts. It was easy to figure out, to correct."

To defeat.

"I remember exactly where he sat: second row, first seat beside the window," says Ray Unger, Ripken's high school math teacher, now retired. "He was disciplined, serious, an excellent student."

Popular, too. In balloting for homecoming court attendants, Ripken was a top vote-getter.

"Nobody didn't like him," Sgt. Kowalewski says. "He never bragged on himself, and those baby blues just melted women. Calvin just had to stand in a room to get a girl's attention."

When Ripken dated, it was usually athletes he wooed. One he saw frequently was Carol Hinch, a three-sport star at Aberdeen and the sister of one of Ripken's teammates.

"He was basically shy around girls," says Mark Willard, a longtime friend. "Remember, Cal wasn't always as athletic-looking as he is today."

Nor as reserved. A school dance found Ripken and several teammates cavorting on the flat roof of Aberdeen High. "We spent the night up there, doing the line dance from 'Saturday Night Fever,' " says Tony Canami, an accomplice who supplied the disco tape.

A prankster

Ripken could be quite the prankster, friends say. He would sneak up behind them and grab their hair or give them a pinch -- or a punch, Richard Parrish recalls.

"The [school] hallway would be full of people moving about, between classes . . . . and out of nowhere comes this shot that hits you in the gut and almost bowls you over. When you look around to get him back, he's gone."

Ripken still greets friends that way, Mr. Parrish says.

"When I saw him in spring training this year, the first thing he did was give me a bear hug. We started wrestling, and the next thing I knew, he'd busted my watch."

Ripken finds these scuffles "competitive" and "fun." Not everyone agrees.

"When you get right down to it, Junior is a pest," Vi Ripken says.

Once, Ripken wrapped his arms around his mother as she was fixing dinner. Twice, she asked him to stop. Then Vi Ripken turned abruptly and, in doing so, caught her son flush on the chin with her fist.

"Mom, you hit me!" Ripken cried, feigning injury.

The bear hugs continued nonetheless, she says.

"The only one he never did that with was his dad."

On the ball field, he would sit on the bench and flick pebbles at the helmet of Aberdeen's on-deck batter. In school, the mischief ranged from mundane to diabolical.

"He liked to slip out the back of Spanish class, knock on the front door of the room and sneak back inside," Elly Ripken says.

Another time, Ripken goaded a student into erasing the blackboard and scrawling something else in its place. The classmate got caught; the instigator did not.

Typical Ripken, friends say.

"Cal was playful," says Ralph Baker, the Army major. "He liked to wind people up, then stand back and, with a quiet chuckle, watch them go."

"Cal was ornery," says Ron Keithley, who sat near him in chemistry class. "He'd turn on those goose-necked spigots on the lab tables so the water ran real slow. It made an annoying whistle that drove the teacher crazy for weeks."

The instructor, an elderly gentleman, finally caught on. He pulled Ripken aside and told him he wouldn't amount to anything unless he "knuckled down."

A favorite gang prank involved Ripken, a loaded fire extinguisher and The Frog.

The extinguisher was filled with water; The Frog, with Ripken's friends. But let Sgt. Kowalewski tell it:

"We pulled up to a stoplight beside a kid we knew from school. Then the rest of us ducked, so it looked like Calvin was alone in the car.

"When the light turned green, we all popped up and squirted the other driver upside the head with the water. Then Calvin did a quick U-turn, and we left."

Sometimes, they would cruise past the automatic toll booth at the Aberdeen exit ramp off Interstate 95. The highway was then a toll road; motorists were required to drop 25 cents into the basket. Occasionally, however, the slot became jammed with orange peels, creating a backup of quarters inside the container that resembled a Las Vegas payoff.

Some of that change bought late-night burgers, says friend Mark Willard.

One evening, a police cruiser rolled up just as Ripken and a cohort neared the toll booth on foot.

"Calvin yelled, 'It's the cops!' and ran," says Mr. Willard. "The other guy tried to hide behind the booth, and got caught."

It was, Mr. Willard says, another instance of Ripken escaping unscathed. "He was the most intelligent one in our crowd."

Certainly one of the luckiest. Midway through his senior year, Ripken was involved in an auto accident in Aberdeen that nearly demolished The Frog but spared its four teen-age occupants.

Ripken says he never saw the car bearing down on him that wintry night as he commenced through an intersection.

"I looked this way and that way, and started across the road," he says. "Then my friends started yelling, 'No, no, Cal! Go! Stop! Go! Go!'

"I panicked, hit the accelerator and kicked it across the road."

The oncoming car smashed into The Frog at 50 mph, shattering its windows and sending it careening toward a 10-foot ditch.

Ripken wrestled his car out of danger and brought it to a stop. Miraculously, no one in either vehicle was injured, though The Frog had been broadsided dead-center.

"That was a tank of a car," says Ripken. "It's amazing none of us were hurt."

The Orioles drafted Ripken in June 1978, shortly before his high school graduation. He celebrated both with a weekend jaunt to Ocean City, where he borrowed Mr. Willard's Ford Fairlane, drove onto the beach after dark and proceeded to get stuck in the sand.

"My car never ran quite the same after that," Mr. Willard laments.

"It didn't run well beforehand, either," says Ripken.

Entering the minors

Two days later, Ripken, 17, reported to the Orioles' Rookie-level club in Bluefield, W.Va.

The team had high hopes for its second-round draft pick. What it got was a slender, 6-foot, 175-pound shortstop who displayed iffy hands and a listless bat.

Deja vu? Ripken's first year in pro ball was much like his first year in high school.

Here's what his teammates at Bluefield remember:

* "He was a scrawny little twerp," former Orioles pitcher Mike Boddicker says. "Cal was so overmatched at the plate, I thought he was a pitcher. He had better stuff than anyone on the staff."

* "Cal struggled -- a lot," says Tim Norris, a pitcher from Archbishop Curley High. "A number of [teammates] told me they thought he'd been drafted because of his dad."

* "I kidded Cal all the time about missing ground balls," says Orioles alumnus John Shelby, who rose to the majors with Ripken. "It seemed like every time the ball was hit to him, I'd have to run in from center field to get it."

Ripken's reason for the poor start: Separation anxiety, same as first grade. This time, however, he phoned home instead of going AWOL.

"I called my parents a lot, for support," he says. "If I needed a pick-me-up, someone to say, 'Everything will be all right,' I'd talk to my mom. If I needed technical advice, I'd talk to my dad."

Ripken wound up hitting .264 for a last-place club, and failed to make the Appalachian League All-Star team. But he'd shown marked improvement. As summer wore on, there were fewer what-am-I-doing-wrong calls to his father -- by then an Orioles coach -- and more of the good-natured pranks.

Once, when he went bowling with his roommate, Larry Sheets, Ripken rigged the scoring computer to give himself a perfect 300 game. Then he rigged his teammate's score.

Sheets finished at 299.

"I made sure I won," Ripken says.

The following year, Ripken climbed to Single-A Miami, where he hit .303, led the league in doubles and, at a beach party, chucked a teammate's favorite shoes in the drink.

Outfielder Shelby is still perturbed about that.

"I was swimming in the ocean when I heard this 'plop' beside me," says Shelby. Sinking fast were the cherished sneakers he'd had since high school. One, he managed to retrieve; the other got away.

"Cal got a kick out of it, until he saw how mad I was," Shelby says.

For months afterward, a repentant Ripken offered Shelby every new pair of athletic shoes his father mailed from home.

Says Ripken: "To this day, I've thought of sending him a pair of shoes, out of the blue, with a note: I didn't think they'd sink."

Next stop: Charlotte, N.C., where Ripken's muscles began to catch up with his mind. In 1980, he hit 25 home runs for the Double-A Southern League champions.

Ripken's metamorphosis was "unbelievable," says Shelby, who batted one spot higher in the Charlotte lineup. "He'd become so strong and confident that, if I reached base, Cal would [deliberately] take two fastballs down the middle to give me time to steal second. Then he'd drive me in."

Competitive streak

Success didn't change Ripken's demeanor, says Bill Swaggerty, Charlotte teammate.

"During rain delays, Cal would pick up a bat and ball, create his own putt-putt golf course in the clubhouse, and then look around for someone he could beat," Swaggerty says.

While teammates played a card game called hearts just to kill time, Ripken played the game like . . . well, Ripken.

"You'd have thought it was the seventh game of the Hearts World Series," Swaggerty says.

That winter, the two men played ball together in Puerto Rico and shared an apartment. Ripken bought the groceries; Swaggerty prepared the meals -- heaping plates of meat, corn and potatoes. Plus homemade cakes and pies.

Rooming with Swaggerty was "like having my mom at home," says Ripken, who ate and ate and grew bigger still.

"The only thing I could beat him at was cooking," says Swaggerty, who lost many a wrasslin' match to Ripken; one tussle resulted in an injury to Swaggerty's pitching hand, ending his season. Ripken fibbed to team officials, saying he accidentally slammed a car door on his roommate's finger.

Several months earlier, on his 20th birthday, Ripken had dislocated his own finger while sliding into first base. Typically, he tried to play through it.

He was standing on the bag, gripping his bad hand when Charlotte's first base coach sidled over for a closer look.

"AAAARGH!" the coach screamed. The pinkie was sticking out at a crazy angle.

"The team doctor popped the knuckle back in," says Ripken. "It felt pretty good, so I started to stay in the game until he said no, the finger would balloon up like crazy."

Distraught at the thought of missing a start, Ripken stayed awake all night, plunging his hand into a bucket of ice water to reduce swelling.

"It was my intention to be able to play the next day," he says.

What he got was a numb hand and a seat on the bench. Ripken hates to sit -- anywhere.

"Given a choice between sitting in front-row seats at the Final Four and playing a good pickup basketball game somewhere else, I'd rather play," he says.


Promoted to Triple-A Rochester in 1981, Ripken made an unnerving discovery: One step from the major leagues, he'd been handcuffed by the team's batting practice pitcher. Worse, it seemed everyone could hit manager Doc Edwards' lazy offerings but him.

Ripken's response? He hired his own batting practice pitcher.

"Cal made me do it," says Floyd Rayford, his teammate and sparring partner at Rochester. "He was always getting me in headlocks."

Rayford says Ripken would drag him to the ballpark at midday -- five hours before regular batting practice -- to take his swings. When the baseballs ran out, Ripken hustled to the outfield, scooped them up and hit some more.

This went on day after day, says Rayford, who came to accept Ripken's repetitive nature.

"Cal is more or less programmed," he says. "It's just the mold that he's cut from."

Nor was he surprised when the Orioles beckoned Ripken, who made his major-league debut as a pinch runner Aug. 10, 1981, two weeks before his 21st birthday.

"He's probably the most mentally tough person I've ever met," Rayford says.

Swaggerty puts it another way:

"Cal is just driven, that's all -- and those are the people who run the world."

The day he was drafted by the Orioles, Ripken sat in an Aberdeen burger joint and told a classmate that his intent was to play 20 years in the majors. Period.

"The Streak was never part of my goals," he says. "I never said I wanted to play every game of those 20 years."

But the alternative always seemed so abhorrent.

"I hated not playing," Ripken says of the few games he has missed in organized ball. "I thought I was invincible. I convinced myself I didn't need to come out of any game, no matter how tired I was.

"I'd say, 'Why are you taking me out? I can do it, I can do it, I can do it.' "