FOR RIPKENS, THERE'S BEEN STRESS BEHIND THE STREAK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Wednesday is a big day in the Ripken household, but not simply because Daddy is scheduled to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

Wednesday also is a big day because it is the first day of school for Cal Ripken's daughter, Rachel.

Rachel, 5, is more excited about school than her father's historic achievement. Her mother, Kelly, has explained to her the significance of the numbers on the warehouse -- 2,129, 2,130, 2,131. But the truth is, Rachel is more interested in dancing between innings to "YMCA."

And Ripken's 2-year-old son, Ryan?

"He has no clue," Kelly said, laughing.

Leave it to the kids to keep Daddy humble, to cut the streak down to size.

"Exactly," Cal Ripken said.

He isn't just a shortstop, an Iron Man, a future Hall of Famer.

He's a son, a husband, a father.

Kelly bought him a card in spring training and wrote, "Enjoy the year. Let everyone tell you how great you are." Ripken took her advice, and stopped fighting the attention surrounding the streak.

"The kids had a lot to do with it," Kelly said. "The reality of life is, if you've got your health -- your kids are healthy, your wife is healthy -- it puts things quickly into perspective."

Kelly said the Ripkens learned that after the death of former Oriole Tim Hulett's son, Sam, who was 6 when he was struck by an automobile in July 1992.

And they've learned it keeping in touch with former Oriole Joe Orsulak's wife, Adrianna, 30, who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and whose son, Michael, 3, suffers from a congenital heart disorder.

They've seen tragedy up close.

And they've endured trying times of their own.

Kelly said she visited 12 doctors and tried 25 medications over a three-year period before a psychiatrist finally diagnosed her Graves' disease, a thyroid disorder, in 1987.

She went through a difficult pregnancy with Ryan in 1993, at a time when Cal was enduring the worst criticism of his career before the All-Star Game at Camden Yards.

And now, with Cal approaching Gehrig, she waits anxiously for the day when security concerns are no longer part of the family's everyday life.

"We've had to beef up security, be a little more cautious," Kelly said. "That definitely has happened. I hope it goes away."

Cal received a death threat from a man identifying himself as Lou Gehrig Jr. in Seattle on Aug. 23. Orioles officials also acknowledged an earlier death threat against him in Boston.

"It didn't shake me up at the moment, but it made me think later on," Kelly said of the Seattle threat. "Not everyone is happy that he's doing this. You never know. You just never know.

"I'll be relieved for Cal [when it's over]. You're kind of a sitting duck, no matter how much security you have. When you're playing shortstop, there isn't anybody around you.

"I don't think about that all the time. But it does cross my mind."

Her husband's, too.

"It's hard to feel you might be at risk, that someone might want to kill you, or even threaten to kill you," Cal said. "There are all these questions you don't know.

"It affects the nerves. You try to do what you need to do. My way is not to deny it's there. You take the necessary precautions, be smart about it, but don't let it rule your life."

Then there are the children.

Cal said concern for their safety raises the precautions "to another level."

"It really worries me with the kids, especially when I'm out with the two of them, trying to keep an eye on both," Kelly said. "But in this day and age, who doesn't watch out for their kids?

"You can't take your eyes off them."

Kelly awakened at 5 a.m. Thursday -- Ryan calling. Later that morning, she was host to People magazine for a three-hour session with Cal and the kids. And by 3:30 p.m., she was in her private suite at Camden Yards for two photo shoots and interviews with "CBS This Morning," Sports Illustrated TV and The Sun.

It was her busiest day yet with the media, and as game time approached, Kelly was munching on popcorn and pretzels, trying to maintain her energy. Her Graves' disease makes it difficult. She takes thyroid medication every day. She is supposed to eat well, sleep well and work out at moderate levels.

"This summer, it hasn't been possible," she said. "There are a few times where I didn't feel so swift."

Graves' disease afflicts George and Barbara Bush and about a million other Americans. Kelly fell ill in 1984, not long after she met Cal.

Only at first, no one knew what was wrong.

"I felt like I had the flu every second of the day," Kelly said. "I had terrible headaches. I had to get into the shower, let the water run on the back of my neck. I couldn't see straight.

"I was very nauseous. I lost 25 pounds. I was so exhausted, but my metabolism was running so high, my body wouldn't rest. It was not pretty."

Kelly said she was misdiagnosed for three years, with doctors saying her problem was "everything from a sinus condition to a cervical injury in my neck to Hodgkin's to leukemia to it was all in my head."

"We were all frightened," Cal said. "It was scary, not to know."

Eventually, Kelly visited a psychiatrist -- the all-in-her-head doctor. Within minutes, he noted her bulging eyes and sunken features.

"Has anyone checked your thyroid?" he asked.

One blood test, and the mystery was over.

"They put me on medication, and it didn't work -- I was too far gone," Kelly said. "So, I had radioactive iodine treatment. They tell you, 'You're radioactive. Don't fly. Don't kiss anybody.' I'm like, 'I'm glowing?'

"Cal and I had only dated for six months. Then I got sick. Some people would have said, 'I really don't need this.' He didn't know if I had a serious illness, a terminal illness. But he hung in there."

Hung in there, and kept playing.

They were married Nov. 13, 1987.

Hardly a 'Solitary Man'

Ripken was batting .215 a week a before the 1993 All-Star Game. He was so embarrassed, he said he would have considered withdrawing if the game had not been in Baltimore.

Newspaper headlines reflected his gloom -- "Iron Man Feels Weight" read one, "Solitary Man" read another. ESPN depicted him behind bars and called him a prisoner of the streak.

Theories abounded on what was wrong with Ripken -- he was upset over the firings of his father and brother, he lacked protection in the Orioles lineup, he needed a day off.

Few knew that Kelly, due to give birth to Ryan in July, was suffering from a blood sugar problem and passing out regularly. Rachel was 3.

"It was really difficult for him to be away," Kelly said. "I needed to have somebody there. My parents were staying over a lot. It was pretty stressful."

Cal is never comfortable making excuses. But he admits now that his concern for Kelly might have affected his play.

"You're just a person," he said. "You only have the capability to deal with so much. From a human standpoint, we're all similar. Things do carry over. You have to do the best you can."

So, he played in the All-Star Game, receiving an ovation "beyond what anyone can comprehend" from the hometown crowd.

Ryan was born on July 26, a day off for the Orioles. Cal flew home to be at Kelly's side. The next night, he hit a dramatic three-run homer off Toronto Blue Jays reliever Duane Ward.

Watching on television, Kelly could see it in his face.

A burden had been lifted.

The expectant family

These days, Kelly's condition is stable. Rachel loves to sing and dance. And Ryan is a budding NBA star.

"He's a carbon copy of Cal -- I have cloned him," Kelly said. "Not only does he look like Cal, but he has the same drive and determination.

"This kid shoots hoops like there's no tomorrow. He's a lefty. And he's very gifted. The pediatrician said he never met a child at this age with as good hand-eye coordination."

What did you expect from the child of Cal, 6-foot-4, and Kelly, 6-0, who finished second in the state in a basketball skills contest at the age of 14?

The Ripkens live on a 25-acre spread in Reisterstown, in a house that includes a spacious gymnasium. Cal no longer is just rich and famous, he's an American idol.

The family has live-in help -- a 23-year-old woman named Joy. But Kelly does most of the hands-on work, waking up the kids and putting them to bed. She or Cal do all the driving.

A dream life, no?

Well, in every way but one.

"It's not Mr. and Mrs. Perfect," Kelly said. "Nothing is for free. You have to give up something to get something. And obviously, the biggest price we pay is our privacy."

Life, like baseball, is a game of adjustments. Cal and Kelly take not one, but two vacations in the winter -- one with the kids and one without to make sure they get time alone together, something that often eludes them during the season.

They are a normal family in the off-season -- Cal even whips up pancakes every Sunday morning. The routine changes once baseball starts. But only this season have things gotten crazy.

"It's been good stress, not negative stress," Kelly said.

Still, she can't wait for it to be over.

"I keep saying, it's like a pregnancy," Kelly said. "The ninth month is here, and now you're starting to get anxious, tired of it. We're both getting to the point where it's getting a little old, time to move on."

They want to be normal.

They want to be a family.

"Let's just have the baby," Kelly said.

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