Baseball's signature player When Cal Ripken Jr. takes the field to give out autographs, it's the fans who get a signing bonus.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The signature itself does not dazzle you.

The C in Cal is more of a slash than a semi-circle. The six letters in Ripken run together in a jumble of jagged up-and-down strokes, like something your doctor just scribbled on a prescription pad. A big, looping J on Jr. is the flashiest touch, but flashy the way putting a bow on a wicker basket is flashy.

It doesn't look like much, and yet to a lot of people, it's pretty much everything. To get Cal Ripken's autograph, they line up in stadiums all across the country like people flocking to a shrine: respectful, but with a sense of urgency.

Or else they stake out the Orioles' hotel on the road, like some junior-varsity private detectives. Or they jump in cars and follow him to airports. Or they materialize at his side in restaurants when he has a forkful of pasta in his mouth and three loose strands dangling across his chin, which, let's face it, is exactly when you want to be signing: "To Becky, best of luck, Cal Ripken Jr." on a cocktail napkin.

Once, a guy jumped out from behind the ice machine as Ripken made his way to his hotel room. Surprised the hell out of him. You pass an ice machine, you're pretty much expecting to see ice, not some knucklehead with a baseball in one hand and a Flair pen in the other.

But this is life for Cal Ripken, the most famous name in baseball today and a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame -- assuming he ever stops playing long enough to get there.

When it comes to autographs, though, the game's Iron Man is the softest of soft touches.

And this has created the weird paradox that has come to rule his life: Nobody in the game signs more than Ripken. Yet nobody's signature is more in demand.

"I don't know anyone in the game who goes through what he does," says outfielder Brady Anderson, Ripken's closest friend on the Orioles.

Two years ago, during that shimmering season when he shattered Lou Gehrig's hallowed record of 2,130 consecutive games played, Ripken's post-game autograph signings at Camden Yards became legendary, often lasting until the wee hours of the morning. He estimates he signed 100,000 autographs for fans that year, and put his name on at least 50,000 other items required by his numerous contractual deals.

According to the Orioles' PR staff, the pace hasn't slowed perceptibly since.

Before batting practice one recent evening, in front of his locker in the vast, carpeted Orioles clubhouse at Camden Yards, Ripken smiled softly when the subject of autographs was raised.

"It's a play on words," he said softly, "but signing has become my signature trademark. I don't know why, but it's taken on a life of its own."

Pfiesteria takes on a life of its own, too, and pretty soon you have a dump-truck-load of dead fish on your dock and a smell that would make a flock of buzzards queasy.

But with Ripken, all this signing has become an incredibly positive experience. It isn't hard to figure out why his signature is in such demand, either: he's a perennial All-Star, humble, team player, keeps his yap shut, doesn't land in the back of a police cruiser in handcuffs with a raincoat over his head.

Plus there's the fact that he's achieved official icon status, breaking one of the most impressive records in all of sports while single-handedly helping baseball rebound from the black eye it took after the last disastrous player strike.

Then there is this: Ripken doesn't mind signing.

No, that's not quite it. He enjoys signing. So, look, if it comes down to Ripken's signature or, say, the signature of sunny Albert Belle, who once fired a baseball at a fan in the stands whom he deemed a bit too mouthy, which way is the average fan going to go?

"It's a pleasant experience all around," Ripken insists. "It's an opportunity to interact, an opportunity to relate, an opportunity to be social. I don't think I'm a real social or outgoing person. But this gives me a vehicle to be that way."

Spend any time around Cal Ripken and what you discover immediately is that he's signing his name to something pretty much all the time.

He signs before home games at Camden Yards whenever he can. He signs "at least 15, 20 minutes" before most road games. He signs tons of baseball memorabilia for various merchandising companies, for which he is paid handsomely, with a lot of the money going to charity.

When the O's are on the road, for 20 to 25 minutes before and after games, he signs memorabilia for the home team's players and their families, who apparently are as star-struck around him as most fans.

"The other teams bring in sackloads of stuff for him to sign," says O's assistant public relations director Bill Stetka.

Then there are all the book signings to plug Ripken's autobiography, "The Only Way I Know," which came out in May and is selling like they stuck a $50 bill in each copy.

At a midnight signing at Border's in Towson this spring, he signed 2,300 copies of his book in three hours.

Average signing time (when he's fresh): 14 books a minute. Don't ask how someone could know this. Someone knows this because a woman from the Tufton Group, Ripken's business representatives, actually put a stopwatch on him.

Another thing you learn hanging around Ripken is that, as far as autographs are concerned, Oriole fans have created a rigid caste system:

There is Cal Ripken's signature.

Then there is everyone else's.

Mike Flanagan, the former Cy Young Award winner and current Oriole broadcaster, tells of leaving Camden Yards after a game one night and being approached by someone in the parking lot.

Ex-ballplayers like Flanagan get approached by lots of people after games, often ruddy-faced guys with a snootful of Wild Turkey and a sob story about how they blew out their arm striking out 16 guys in high school, otherwise they would have been drafted and made the bigs and been a star like Flanagan and blah, blah, blah.

But on this night, it's a boy of about 11 bending Flanagan's ear.

The kid whips out six cards of Flanagan from his playing days, all in good condition, and asks the ex-pitcher to sign all six.

"Boy," said Flanagan, glowing with pride, "you must really be a big fan of mine!"

"Well," the kid said, "I need six of these to trade for one Cal Ripken."

It's a few minutes after six on a sultry Tuesday evening when Ripken pops out of the Oriole's dugout at Camden Yards.

Immediately, scores of fans standing along the first-base line surge toward the field, shouting: "Cal, can you sign, please!" and "Mr. Ripken, please! Mr. Ripken!"

The visiting Kansas City Royals are taking batting practice, but many pause to check out the commotion. Outfielder Bip Roberts stares at the scene with the kind of look you get when you first see the Grand Canyon.

Ripken, calm and unhurried, walks over to the railing past the photographer's well and begins signing. The ushers herd the crowd into some semblance of a line, and pretty soon that line stretches halfway to Delaware, with the hard-core memorabilia guys high-fiving each other and thinking: Par-tay!

For the next 48 minutes, Cal Ripken signs whatever they put in front of him.

He signs baseballs and baseball cards, programs and Oriole caps, color photos of himself as a skinny 23-year-old shortstop and the backs of popcorn boxes.

John Maroon, the Orioles public relations director, has watched this scene many times. In spring training, Maroon often provides the muscle at a Ripken signing, attempting to keep the crowds orderly so that some poor little kid doesn't get crushed by all the adults straining to get at Ripken.

"What amazes me about Cal," says Maroon, "is how personal he makes the signings."

In truth, Ripken displays none the garden-variety, jaded-ballplayer demeanor: head down, grunted acknowledgments, grim expression, like he's being asked to break rocks in the hot sun. Ripken smiles, banters easily with the crowd, talks to the kids about school, their favorite Orioles, whatever.

He signs slowly, carefully, blowing softly on the baseballs to dry the ink, advising: "Hold it like this so you don't smudge it."

Finally, as the stadium clock nears 7, Ripken's body language indicates it's time to go. A ripple of anxiety runs through the line.

Occasionally, an incident occurs as the fans sense Ripken is about to go; the shoving and elbowing ratchets up to Stanley Cup hockey intensity, the pleading ("Just one more, Cal!") becomes more shrill.

"In Detroit a couple years ago," Brady Anderson recalls, "he was signing and then he had to go hit [in batting practice]. And this woman starts screaming at him: 'C'mon, Cal, it's for my little boy! Don't be a bad guy!' "

It was, Brady said, one of the few times he's seen Ripken really hot, the famous blue eyes narrowing to twin slits.

"He stopped and went over there and said: 'You should be a good parent and explain to your little boy that I'm not a bad guy for not being able to sign right now. But I have to go do my work. And you can't always get what you want.' "

Tonight's crowd has better manners; the fans at Camden Yards get more upset when they can't make a cellular phone connection.

When Ripken finally says: "I have to go get taped," a chorus of "Thanks, Cal!" and "You're the greatest, Cal!" is heard.

Except well, there is this one woman.

She's in her 30s, attractive, but with a voice like a refrigerator being dragged across linoleum. She bolts from the dispersing line and races to the corner of the dugout, dangling a copy of Ripken's book and imploring him to sign it.

Well, what author can resist his own book? As Ripken signs, the woman gushes: "You have the bluest eyes I've ever seen!"

Ripken smiles, blushes, glances at his watch.

"Oh, my God!" shouts the woman, who is now going into full meltdown.

lTC Except all this theatrical swooning is wasted on Ripken, who is already on his way to the training room.

Ripken did not collect player autographs as a kid. His dad, Cal Ripken Sr., was a ballplayer, coach and manager in the Orioles minor-league organization, so Cal Jr.'s was a baseball upbringing, nomadic even by those standards.

He grew up in Aberdeen, but the family lived part-time in 14 towns in 10 states over 18 years, places like Amarillo, Texas, Aberdeen, S.D., Elmira, N.Y., and Asheville, N.C.

A kid hanging around the fringes of The Show could have scored himself a boatload of autographs back then. Players like Boog Powell, Paul Blair and Mark Belanger were like family.

But the old man, whipcord tough, no-nonsense, old-school all the way, gave Cal Jr. a piece of advice one day, which he never forgot.

"My dad said: 'You know its better to meet someone, shake their hand, ask them a question. "How do you hold the ball? How do you throw this, how do you do that?" In the same amount of time that it takes to get a signature, you can take information away with you.'

"Somebody would say: 'I got Brooks Robinson's autograph!" Cal Jr. recalls of his childhood. "And I'd say: 'Well, I met him. I talked to him.' That was the important thing to me."

But a funny thing happens to you when you reach the bigs.

Suddenly, on your way to the batting cage, on the walk to the parking lot after the game, in restaurants and shopping malls, people are shoving pens and pieces of paper at you.

A few years ago, you were nothing, a bush-leaguer living in a one-room dive in some Podunk town, earning what the get-ready guy at a car dealership makes.

But now you're somebody. People want your signature! And if you're not too much of a jerk, if you're any kind of a student of human nature, you look in their eyes and see how much it means to them, especially the kids.

Not the kids sent up by the hard-eyed professional memorabilia dealers, who hand you a Sharpie and a ball and tell you to sign only on the sweet spot, and pretty soon that ball ends up under glass in some dusty, drafty baseball card shop in Erie, Pa.

Just the regular kids.

"When I was looking at real estate, looking at houses," Ripken says, "you'd go into the children's room that was still furnished, -- and you'd look on the bureau and there'd be a ball up there with my signature on it.

"It hits you a little bit that somebody thinks of it that much, as a prized possession."

That realization hit home in a different way a few years back at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., when Ripken was spending some off-time with his family.

Cal was taking daughter Rachel, then 3 or 4 years old, to the swimming pool at their condo when the usual gaggle of kids surrounded them, clamoring for autographs.

Ripken is loathe to let his celebrity disrupt his family life; he won't sign when he's with his children.

Gently, he told the kids: "I'm really sorry, but I'm playing the role of a daddy now, just like your daddies and mommies."

The kids accepted this gracefully and went on their way. But Rachel, a bright girl who'd been studying the whole autograph scene swirling around her dad for weeks without really getting a handle on it, was intrigued.

A few minutes later, she picked up a napkin, went up to her father and said: "Are you Cal Ripken? Can I have your autograph?"

If you're a celebrity parent, this is either a wonderful example of precociousness, or the most vivid sign yet that the apocalypse is upon us.

Brady Anderson is sitting in the Oriole's dugout an hour before game time, wrapping tape around the handle of a bat and talking about psycho fans, which is always a favorite topic of discussion among ballplayers.

A player of Cal Ripken's stature draws psycho fans the way dusk draws mosquitoes. Right now, Anderson is relating one memorable incident.

After a game one night, Cal and his wife, Kelly, Brady and his girlfriend and some friends leave Yankee Stadium for a late-night dinner at Elaine's in Manhattan.

Several fans, who had tried in vain to get Cal's signature outside the stadium, end up jumping in their cars and following the Ripken party to the Upper East Side.

At the restaurant, the Ripken party is seated, and because he is not wearing a paper bag over his head, Cal is instantly recognized.

Word quickly gets around the joint that: a) Cal Ripken, the living legend is here, and, b) He will not sign autographs during dinner.

So the next time Cal, Brady and the others at their table look up, they see a crowd of 50 or 60 people -- including the vultures who tailed them -- out on the sidewalk, pressing their noses against the restaurant window, waiting for Cal to leave.

Shortly after, Anderson overhears a man seated nearby telling a woman: "I don't know if I can get out of here, with all those people waiting for me."

OK. You figure the man couldn't be serious. You figure he has to be kidding. But Brady says this guy was serious as an appendectomy.

"Oh, yeah, he wasn't kidding!" Anderson insists. "He really thought they were waiting for him. He was like a minor-league actor. Might have had a bit part in "Platoon' and been blown up in the first scene."

When Ripken and his family finally leave, he finds himself in the midst of a howling New York mob, the type of edgy crowd that materializes for everything from a street shooting to a Planet Hollywood opening.

For Ripken, though, it is just another night like so many others: his fingers working a pen, a scrap of paper in front of his face, surrounded by a sea of shining, eager faces that never seems to recede.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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