Cal Ripken Sr. cool after winter of his discontent

THE BALTIMORE SUN

All those spring trainings and suddenly Cal Ripken Sr. isn't carrying a clipboard that outlines the plan of the day, nor is he swinging a fungo bat with the deftness of a baton. For 37 years he was in a baseball environment. Always a Baltimore Oriole.

Now it's different. He's home while the Orioles are at play. But there are no symptoms of withdrawal or expressions of resentment. "At this stage, I know I'm not missing anything," he says in the direct matter-of-fact manner that has been the Ripken way.

His wife, Vi, realizes what an unusual occurrence it is to have him around the house in early March, when teams are in camp preparing for the season and he's not with them. "It's different but wonderful for both of us," she said. "I know him better than anyone. He's holding up fine. He's not yearning to be in Florida even though it's a time of the year he always used to be there."

In the comfort of the Ripken living room in Aberdeen, he talked openly of his firing -- not retirement -- from the Orioles and offered a myriad of reminiscences, pleasant and informative.

Ripken, 57, has spent more than half of his life working for an organization in every aspect of on-the-field baseball. His contributions stand as a glorious record of devotion to duty. In the end, though, he gathered the distinct impression he was being moved to another job to satisfy the whims of management.

On Oct. 15, he was called to a meeting that included general manager Roland Hemond, assistant general manager Frank Robinson and manager Johnny Oates.

"Roland told me we have to move some people along [ostensibly to open opportunities for younger coaches]," Ripken said. "He said he wanted me to coordinate the minor-league camp and also I'd probably spend some time with the major-league club.

"I listened and asked him, 'Before you go flowering up that job, tell me why I'm not staying here.' He said again because 'we have to move some people along.' I asked him when he wanted an answer. He mentioned three or four days. I thought it out,

reviewed it and called back and told him I couldn't accept the proposal. They announced I retired. I didn't retire."

There was a charge made that he had grown distant from the players last season. "That's wrong," he said. "The players never stopped coming to me asking for help. The biggest laugh I got was when I read in some newspaper that I sat in the back row of the bus to get away from everybody. Know why I sat there? So I could smoke cigarettes."

There also was speculation that a decision by Ripken, while coaching third base, might have contributed to his termination.

In the opening game of a big series against the Toronto Blue Jays in late September, he held up Tim Hulett in the ninth inning with what could have been the tying run.

"I can't believe that had anything to do with it," he said. "If you have any understanding of how baseball is played, you realize a coach never wants a tying run thrown out at home plate. The ball wasn't hit that deep, and Tim Hulett is not a good runner. We had Mike Devereaux at the plate, and we have a chance to tie or even win the game. You don't take a high-risk chance at that point."

Ultimately, Ripken was removed as a coach. It ended a career that had started when he was a 21-year-old catcher, who soon became a craftsman at the position, even though a shoulder injury prevented him from getting a major-league opportunity. He had been a player, minor-league manager, major-league coach and for a season, plus six games in 1988, manager of the Orioles.

Ripken remembered his first contract for $150 per month; the late scout, John "Poke" Whalen, didn't have a pen so he borrowed one from a spectator so he could sign.

"It was over on Lee Field or what some of us in Aberdeen called Canners Field," he said. "At Phoenix, my manager was Bob Hooper, who also pitched. He was a great teacher and threw the best stiff-wrist slider I ever saw. Bob used so much resin that after a game when I'd congratulate him, our hands would stick together."

Playing that rookie season at Phoenix, in the Arizona-Mexico League, meant the team made a road trip to Cananea, Mexico, where games were held in a bull ring that didn't have a blade of grass.

"The heat had to be 130 or 140 degrees," Ripken said. "When I was warming up a pitcher, I'd dig a hole to bury both my feet and then insulate them by pushing the sand over my shoes."

He was aware during the mid-1950s that the Orioles organization was beginning to stabilize and make progress. But he also knew that manager-general manager Paul Richards and farm director Jim McLaughlin rarely spoke. It was a house divided, but success couldn't be denied because both men were proficient in their areas of responsibility.

"With McLaughlin," Ripken said, "he knew how to direct people and had a strong relationship with the scouts. If you think he didn't know what he was doing then, stop to consider he built the Orioles' farm system, went into real estate, then joined the Cincinnati Reds and returned to Baltimore later when our minor-league setup was sinking. He brought it back again."

In those uncomplicated minor-league days, Ripken frequently caught the hardest thrower in Orioles history and maybe for the ages -- the unfortunate, misguided Steve Dalkowski, who threw with such velocity one of his pitches tore off part of a rival hitter's ear lobe. Another time, a Dalkowski pitch hit the umpire in the mask, dropped him to the ground and sent the unconscious man to a hospital with a concussion.

Ripken was asked to compare Dalkowski to Nolan Ryan for sheer speed. "Steve was faster," he said. "I don't even have to think about it. Nolan, though, had other pitches and could get them over the plate."

As for a prescribed Orioles way of doing things, he credits Richards. "Say a kid came out of high school, the sandlots or college and showed up on one of our clubs," Ripken said. "The first time he'd stand on the mound to warm up, before he made a pitch, someone would holler, 'whoa.'

"Right there, that minute, a correction would be made. He was shown how to put the ball in his glove, to wind up, to keep a shoulder pointed toward the catcher's mitt and head focused. The result was the fundamentals were ingrained, and all pitchers had the same mechanics. Over a period of time, with managers and coaches changing, we drifted away from it."

Ripken, after 14 years of managing in the minors and 11 seasons as a coach, was appointed in 1987 to head the parent club upon the second retirement of Earl Weaver. It became a momentous opportunity, one he cherished and enjoyed -- even though the flow of quality personnel from the minors had become a mere trickle.

"Edward Bennett Williams, the owner then, decided he was going to roll over my contract for 1988 and said he wanted me to have the chance to manage a decent club," Ripken said. "So it was agreed to be a rebuilding year. We had many meetings based on trying to educate people to do the right things. I kept telling them we were signing too many soft-tossing pitchers. The fastball is baseball's best pitch. Always has been, always will be."

The Orioles, at the time, had a collection of pitchers who couldn't blacken your eye with their best fastball. Yet, after only six games, Ripken was replaced by Frank Robinson, who lost 15 more in a row.

It didn't appear to be the way to handle a man who gave blood, sweat, tears and even two of his sons, Cal Jr., and Bill, to the Orioles.

Asked if he thought the boys were going to be major-league players when they were children, he said: "Nobody is smart enough to say any kid is going to be a big-leaguer. You sign them as prospects. There's no guarantee. To tell you the truth, I was away managing in the minors and didn't see them play that much. Vi saw them a lot more than I ever did."

Ripken doesn't rule out a return to baseball, but gives the impression he'll use 1993 as a sabbatical before seeing what is available.

For the present, Cal and Vi Ripken are involved in the Maryland Special Olympics. They've been to the winter games at the Wisp resort in Western Maryland and will be in Salisbury today. Ripken says he's never visited Ocean City and Vi was there only once as a child when she was a majorette in a parade.

Attention to playing, coaching, managing -- the Ripken profession -- always pre-empted a summer vacation. Now he has the time.

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