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A LOVE UNSPOKEN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For a young Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Bill, baseball was more than a game and a business. It was a language - a medium - that helped them communicate with their father.

Longtime Orioles coach Cal Ripken Sr. was the epitome of "old school," a devotee of the sport, with a raspy, smoker's voice who liked to talk baseball over beer. His family members say he demonstrated his affection not in emotional bursts but by being there for them in the long term.

The family's life wasn't perfect. In fact, the Ripkens led a nomadic existence for years as the four siblings were pulled from grade school before the school year was out so they and their mother, Vi, could follow Cal Senior around each spring and summer to his latest baseball jobs.

But if there is a Father's Day message in the Ripkens' story, it is a testament to the power of commitment - whether to baseball, family or the community - and unspoken communication.

"In our family in general, I don't know if the 'love' word was used very often," says Bill Ripken, who retired as a player in 1998, three years before Cal Junior. "To me, it was a foregone conclusion. It was like the first step in a geometry problem. It was a given."

In a sense, Cal Junior's record streak of 2,632 consecutive games - and his later role in creating a Baltimore-based foundation - were about trying to do well by "Senior," who became the first father to manage two sons simultaneously in the majors, with the Orioles in 1987. Cal Senior, who was fired early in the 1988 season but eventually returned as a coach, died of lung cancer in 1999 at age 63.

The four-year-old foundation, which bears the senior Ripken's name, offers sports programs and grants aimed at disadvantaged youths ages 10-14. Cal Junior - whose office is decorated with a detailed pencil drawing of his father - says the earliest memories of his father were as a teacher, so he wanted to create a foundation with the mission of continuing that legacy, albeit on a larger scale.

"Dad would give of his time in a lot of minor league cities to do Saturday-morning clinics," Ripken Junior says. "I ended up piggybacking, going with him just so I could spend 20 or 30 minutes in the car with him.

"The last thing you wanted to do at 6:30 in the morning on a Saturday is get up. But he would tap me on the knee, and I would force myself up. And I would sit in the hot sun in a minor league bleacher and listen and listen and I would think, 'Oh God, this is boring.' "

Ripken Senior, who grew up in Harford County and kept the family there, also ran a summer camp at what is now Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg.

Now, Cal, 44, and Bill, 40, are the ones offering sports clinics because, Cal says, his father "could only impact as many people as he touched."

After writing an instructional book (Play Baseball the Ripken Way) the brothers decided to use last year's book tour to give kids a memorable baseball experience. The Ripkens traveled to 10 cities, most of them major league baseball venues. An exception was Rochester, N.Y., which they included because it was their last minor league stop as players and because Cal Senior had also played and managed in Rochester.

At each city, they conducted a youth clinic at the stadium. Cal Junior says he remembers how much he enjoyed stretching in the grass at big league parks, and he wanted kids to have that experience. Along the way, the foundation donated to Boys and Girls Clubs and gave sports equipment to schools.

On a rainy, early-season day at Boston's Fenway Park, the Ripkens got Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to appear and answer the kids' baseball questions. The Red Sox went on last year to defy a supposed curse and win the World Series.

"One of the first questions a kid asked him was about 'The Curse of the Bambino.' You can only imagine that what Curt said to them - and then to have the season unfold as it did - how they feel like they were in the know," Cal Junior says

The Ripkens say they find themselves imparting lessons their father taught them, such as teaching about the "whys" of executing certain baseball plays and stressing appropriate dress.

"He would say that when you're on a field you're supposed to look like you belong," Bill Ripken says. "We could be taking early batting practice in Texas at 2 in the afternoon and there is no one in the stands who could see you, but we were required to wear our batting-practice jersey and regular baseball pants. If Dad was on that team, that's just what you did."

Bill and Cal Junior might have learned toughness by example.

"I can remember when my husband was in the low minors, he got hit in the ear with the ball," Vi Ripken says. "Senior played when he was hurt. He said, 'The minute you sit down, somebody is going to take your job.'" She said the boys acquired the message "through osmosis."

Cal Senior was just as resolute teaching his children - the baseball Ripkens have a sister, Ellen, and a brother, Fred - how to grow vegetables in the family garden. Bill Ripken recalls his father showing him how to mound the soil just right around the potato stems.

Says Vi Ripken: "As far as the huggy-huggy and the kissy-kissy, that was not my husband. I think he was always quick to acknowledge something they did well. He didn't gush over it. But if something didn't turn out right, he was there to support them."

When it came to discussing family matters, the senior Ripken often fell back on baseball as a metaphor.

"We're around the dining room table and - whether there was a behavioral issue at school - he would kind of equate it to something in the clubhouse, or something on the field, or something with a fan and a player," Cal Junior says.

Says Vi Ripken: "Baseball was the analogy that he knew best."

The Ripkens are certainly not the only American family to have used baseball for father-child relationship building. What is unique is how they incorporated that bonding experience into the family business and charitable activities.

Among the foundation's activities is a kids' essay contest in which the 25 winners travel with their fathers or male mentors to Aberdeen for a "Dad's Day at the Yard" clinic and an IronBirds minor league game each Father's Day weekend.

The event, quite naturally, is dedicated to Cal Senior.

"There's something my sister has told me, that when she hears me, she actually hears Dad," Bill Ripken says. "That's probably the best thing she could have ever said."

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