If you want to meet the matriarch of Maryland's most famous baseball family, just go to a minor league game in Aberdeen. There she is on dozens of summer nights — plain-spoken and tough as leather but also open, happy to talk about the thousands of games she watched as the wife of a manager and the mother of infielders.
Violet Ripken — "Vi" to anyone who knows her — married a baseball lifer, Cal Ripken Sr., and raised two future major leaguers, one of whom, Cal Ripken Jr., went on to the Hall of Fame. Her boys hung up their spikes long ago, but at age 74, she still treats the ballpark as a second home.
"I think baseball is obviously in her blood as well," said Aaron Moszer, general manager of the Aberdeen Ironbirds, the minor league team she watches in the stadium that bears her last name.
"I'm more like a goodwill ambassador," Vi Ripken said Friday in an interview with Harford magazine, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication. "I enjoy what they've done up there. … It's good for the town and the whole county."
Family friends and baseball lovers were unsettled Wednesday at the news that she had been missing for almost 24 hours after being abducted at gunpoint from her longtime home in Aberdeen. She reappeared unharmed, and family members — she has four children: Fred, Elly, Cal Jr. and former Orioles second baseman Bill — said she was resting comfortably with them.
"Kidnapped?" said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who worked closely with her husband and baseball-playing sons. "That's weird; it's scary. Cal Sr. was tough as nails himself, but Vi is a strong one. She was very important to Cal and the mainstay of the family."
Person after person used the word strength when asked Wednesday to describe Vi Ripken's role in her famous family.
"She's the ultimate mother," said Ron Shapiro, Cal Ripken Jr.'s longtime agent and friend. "If you're going to make a home and give values to your children, someone has to be there every day so they feel that stability. Vi has done that as well as anyone I've ever known. She was always there for them."
Sometimes, that meant packing the four Ripken children in the family Mercury and driving them to a remote minor league outpost — Appleton, Wis., Kennewick, Wash., Elmira, N.Y. — where Cal Sr. was managing. Sometimes, it meant taking them to their own games as she managed the household while he was away.
"Cal and Billy have always said that in a lot of ways, she filled the role of both parents, because Cal Sr. was always away with minor league teams," said John Maroon, a longtime spokesman for the Ripkens.
"What a great baseball lady," said Ray Miller, former Orioles manager and pitching coach.
Observers have often credited Cal Sr., who died in 1999, with imparting the toughness and work ethic that allowed Cal Jr. to play in a record 2,632 straight games. But family friends said Vi, who shares her son's understated demeanor and piercing blue eyes, was just as responsible.
"The sense of everyday discipline and responsibility, that came from her," Shapiro said. "She and Cal Sr. complemented each other. Neither were gregarious. They were quiet, determined people who led by example."
Vi Ripken was born Violet Roberta Gross, a German/English descendant of families that had lived in Harford County for generations, working as farmers, blacksmiths, millers and laborers. The daughter of a mechanic, she met Cal Sr. at Aberdeen High School.
He was a catcher who signed with the Orioles in 1956 and spent his entire professional career with the organization, moving into coaching and managing once his playing days ended. The couple married in 1957, and Vi Ripken embraced the itinerant summers of a baseball wife. She later said that when Cal Sr. became the club's manager in 1987 and 1988, it was one of her proudest moments.
As Cal Jr. became a national icon, his mother recalled him as a "pest" who climbed any chair or stool he could find as a toddler and wrapped her in bear hugs as a teenager. "I told him to stop it twice," she told The Sun in 1995. "Then I [punched him]. I caught him right on the chin, though I didn't plan to."
For all her toughness, the children saw an emotional side as well. In a 1995 interview, Fred Ripken recalled her speeding into the parking lot at Aberdeen High School after Cal Jr. was drafted by the Orioles — hugging him, backing up a step and then hugging him again with tears in her eyes.
She was usually on hand to celebrate the milestones in Cal Jr.'s career. In the recent Harford magazine interview, she remembered the night in 1995 when he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played: "We treat everything very matter-of-factly, so we would just laugh. He did what he was supposed to do, come to work every day. That night the electricity was so great. It was an awe moment. It was quite emotional."
But she often deflected questions about her role.
"I haven't changed his diapers in a long time," she said in 2007 when asked if she had offered any advice on Cal Jr.'s Hall-of-Fame induction speech. "He's made it this far on his own, and I'm sure he'll do fine this time on his own."
In recent years, she has volunteered as a board member for the Boys & Girls Club of Harford County. "I find I really enjoy it," she said in the recent interview. "I'm not sure I made much of a difference, but they wanted people from the area who cared and wanted to make it better."
Neighbors describe her as the "kindest woman," who maintains an immaculate yard and always waves as she passes in her car.
The best place to find her is still the ballpark in Aberdeen, about 10 minutes from the home she and Cal Sr. bought 46 years ago. She threw the ceremonial first pitch at the first game in Ripken Stadium in 2002 and recently did the same for the 10th anniversary season opener. Moszer said he can count on two hands the number of games she has missed in that decade.
Sometimes, she hosts visitors in her regular seats on the club level, but just as often, she roams the park, greeting longtime fans and ballpark employees who call her "Mrs. Vi." She might visit her daughter Elly, who works at the stadium, or tease Cal Jr. and Billy when they're around.
"She's a cornerstone of this place," Moszer said. "She always will take the time to chat with somebody and the people here really know her as an ambassador in the community. She serves a motherly role."