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KELLY RIPKEN: CAL'S MVP Kelly Ripken: In sickness and in health, this Oriole wife is a valuable player

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There's The Story . . . the fairy-tale account of how an autographed napkin and a mother playing Cupid helped bring Kelly and Cal Ripken Jr. together; then there's the lesser-known tale of what took place six months later.

The latter begins not with Once upon a time but with a line from Dickens: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .

Kelly had just returned from an idyllic trip to Japan with the Orioles in 1984. She and her boyfriend, baseball superstar Cal Ripken Jr., had discussed getting engaged as they waited in a Tokyo airport. Life had never been brighter.

So at first she chalked up the headaches to excitement and stress. But when they were followed by fainting, weight loss, insomnia and nausea, she knew something was seriously wrong.

"I kept saying, 'I'll feel better next week,' " she recalls. "Well, next week turned into three years."

She saw everyone from neurologists to cardiologists to psychiatrists and was tested for everything from a brain tumor to a heart condition to cancer. Though already slim, she lost 25 pounds. And family members watched her become short-tempered and emotional. The fainting forced her to quit her job as an agent in the VIP lounge of Piedmont Airlines.

"I thought I was going crazy. I thought, 'My mind is snapping,' " she says.

Besides her health concerns, there was another fear: Would Mr. Ripken end their relationship?

"I thought, 'I have found the man of my dreams. He is so wonderful and kind and considerate.' . . . Then I got sick and I didn't know whether he was going to say, 'I'm sorry about what's happened to you, but I can't deal with it.'

"But he didn't do that. He stuck by me."

Mr. Ripken stuck by her through 12 doctors and 25 different medications until finally, three years after the symptoms began, she was diagnosed with Graves' disease -- the thyroid condition that also afflicts the President and Barbara Bush.

Ms. Ripken tells this story sitting in a Harbor Court condominium she and her husband rented for Opening Day. She looks the picture of health with her spring training tan, shiny blond hair and lean 6-foot frame. With radioactive treatment and daily medication, she's now able to lead a fairly normal life. But she decided to share this story in part to dispel the myth of the perfect Ripken life.

'We still have problems'

"As much as everyone sees from the outside that our life looks magical, . . . we still have problems. We're like everybody else," says Ms. Ripken, 33.

Not everyone, however, has a husband who makes millions a year or a palatial home on 24 acres in Worthington Valley or fans seeking her autograph. But despite the wealth and fame, Ms. Ripken seems unpretentious and down-to-earth.

One of the most valuable lessons she learned since marrying Mr. Ripken nearly five years ago was the importance of holding on to her own identity. With the shortstop's stellar '91 season -- during which he was named the American League's Most Valuable Player -- Ms. Ripken found herself pinch-hitting as his personal assistant.

"I've told myself this year I'm going to back off from that," she says. "We were starting to get too intertwined. Baseball started spilling over to our personal life. . . . I'm the wife. I don't want to be the secretary."

In the last year, she has become more involved in modeling -- doing a holiday show for I. Magnin in Rockville with the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, and a New York runway show for designer Eleanor Brenner.

The latter appearance created a role reversal for the Ripkens, since Kelly was the star and Cal a supportive member of the audience.

"Just during that short time, the spotlight was on me," she says.

She likes modeling

Although she likes modeling and briefly considered pursuing it as a teen-ager, she's not serious about it now.

"You have to realize that all these models are 19 and 20 years old. Then there's me," she says.

The youngest of three children, Ms. Ripken was born in New Jersey but raised in Cockeysville. She remains close to her parents, Robert and Joan Marie Geer, as well as her brother, Mike, 36, and sister, Holly, 35.

A popular, outgoing teen-ager, Ms. Ripken played many sports, including basketball and softball. Her athletic talents didn't scare off young men, though. She had many would-be boyfriends and was named to the homecoming court at Dulaney High School. Her two trophies -- one for basketball, the other for track and field -- are displayed in the couple's basement in front of her husband's "hundreds," she says.

After graduating in 1977, she went on to get her degree in speech communications from the University of Maryland College Park.

In 1983, however, her life changed when her mother met Cal Ripken Jr. at the Corner Stable restaurant in Cockeysville. She asked for his autograph on a paper napkin and had him make it out to her daughter Kelly.

"He wrote, 'To Kelly, if you look anything like your mother, I'm sorry I missed you,' which is very out of the ordinary for him. His typical line is, 'All my best,' " says Ms. Ripken.

Ms. Ripken's mother called her with the news. "She said, 'You're never going to believe whose autograph I got for you -- Cal Ripken.' I said, 'That's great, Mom, but who is he?' "

She found out two months later when she met the baseball player at Christopher's nightclub in Cockeysville.

Her friend, Patty Buddemeyer, who was with her that night, says getting Ms. Ripken to approach the baseball star wasn't easy. "She must have stood up and sat down 10 times before she got the nerve up to go over to him. And Cal must have had a million women around him," she says.

But when they finally met, the chemistry was right. He remembered her mother and asked Ms. Ripken for her telephone number. "I thought he was just being polite, but he called the next day," she says.

They married in November 1987. She can get his autograph anytime now, but has kept the napkin for sentimental reasons. The quality that Ms. Ripken still appreciates most about her husband is his thoughtfulness. For her birthday last month, Mr. Ripken, who was in the midst of spring training, organized a romantic day for two, including three dozen roses, champagne, a specially ordered Italian dinner and a diamond bracelet.

Perhaps that's why there's a wistfulness in her voice when she talks about the '92 season. "I have mixed feelings about the new season," she admits. "It means I lose a husband for seven months."

She hopes to go on more road trips this year, having only made two last year. But since their daughter is a toddler, Ms. Ripken won't be attending many night games. Rachel did accomplish a first on opening day -- making it through an entire game without napping or growing restless.

Aware of the stereotype

Ms. Ripken is also keenly aware of the stereotype that exists about baseball wives. When she and her husband recently attended the opening of Planet Hollywood, New York's hot new restaurant, she wound up talking to a TV producer, who gave her his vision of the "typical baseball wife."

"It was something to the effect of . . . 'You all go to the game and watch your husbands and gossip.' He saw us as this little groupie section, and the only thing we were wrapped up in was baseball," she says incredulously.

In fact, she has stopped sitting with the other Oriole wives since fans made it impossible to watch the game. And having grown up in Maryland, she has many friends here outside the world of baseball.

"A lot of the younger players' wives are intimidated by her," explains her friend, Jill Olson, who is married to relief pitcher Gregg. "It's real hard for people to approach her. They don't give her a chance."

If Kelly Ripken has had to sacrifice anything, it's been privacy. On the weekends, cars often stop to gaze at their home.

"She doesn't feel like she can do what she wants because someone's always watching," says Ms. Buddemeyer. "We can't go out and have a drink because somebody might misconstrue it and turn it into something it's not."

Ms. Ripken says, "Every now and then it can get to be too much. What I do then is just stay in my home. But for Cal, I wouldn't want it any other way. By not having that privacy, it shows me that my husband is doing his job and people appreciate how hard he works."

Daughter is first priority

The Ripkens' daughter is their first priority these days. Whenever they can, they prefer spending time at home with her. Their home is considered their last refuge, and they decline to be interviewed there. Ms. Ripken spent two years decorating it with the help of Federal Hill Interiors. There are 16 rooms, including six bedrooms and a gym with a basketball court. She calls the style "soft contemporary" and the basement with Mr. Ripken's trophies and plaques "Cal's Shrine."

Rachel is at an age where she now understands her father plays baseball, although for a short time she was mistaking every ballplayer on television for her father. She also shows signs of having inherited her parents' athletic skills.

"The genes are definitely there," Ms. Ripken says. "Pam Shriver told us whenever we're ready, she's ready to teach her."

There is a 50 percent chance Rachel will also develop Graves' disease, a fact that leaves Ms. Ripken constantly on the lookout for symptoms.

As for her own illness, she has blood tests every six weeks to monitor her condition. By altering her diet, she has learned to live with the headaches and occasional nausea. What's taken more time to adjust to is the anger she felt toward doctors who knew her own mother had the disease and misdiagnosed her.

The illness made her pregnancy more complicated, but the Ripkens are now thinking of having more children.

"There are side effects you have to live with the rest of your life," she says. "But maybe this has made me a better person. Maybe it's made me value my health more and my family more."

THE RIPKEN FILE

Born: March 26, 1959; Mount Holly, N.J.

Education: Graduated from Dulaney High School in 1977 and the University of Maryland College Park in 1981 with a B.A. in speech communications.

Family: Married since 1987 to Oriole shortstop, Cal Ripken Jr.; daughter, Rachel, 2 years, 4 months.

Current home: Worthington Valley.

What she can do better than her husband: Get up early.

How she can tell when her husband is in a bad mood: "He doesn't say anything, but he's very rarely in a bad mood."

How she explains her husband's job to their daughter: "I say Daddy is at work. I don't say Daddy is playing baseball. I want her to understand that this is her father's job."

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