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."
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."