Ryan Ripken, son of Cal Ripken Jr., talks before the Aberdeen IronBirds' home opener at Ripken Stadium. (Eduardo A. Encina, Baltimore Sun video)
Ryan Ripken has spent his young professional career attempting to distinguish himself from his famous father, and at times that drive led to frustration, especially as injuries kept him off the field for most of his first two seasons of professional baseball.
The 23-year-old son of Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. now again stands in the shadow of Maryland's royal baseball family -- this time literally – as he attempts to revive his career playing in a stadium that bears his last name.
Ryan Ripken is now an Orioles farmhand, playing for the Short-A Aberdeen IronBirds, owned by his father. The younger Ripken was signed by the organization in March after he was released by the Washington Nationals following three unproductive years in their minor league system.
Ripken's arrival in the Orioles farm system comes five years after the club drafted him in the 20th round out of Gilman. He attended South Carolina instead of signing with the Orioles but said he joins his hometown organization in a much better place, realizing that the Ripken name will follow him wherever his baseball career takes him.
"No matter what, I'll never escape it for sure," Ripken said. "I just really try to focus on what I can do to prepare each day [with] my preparation and getting a routine. And then once the game starts, just really try to focus on one pitch as a time, one at-bat at a time, one play at a time. Obviously, there's a lot more pressures from the outside, but what I've come to learn is that I can't control any of those. Just like the name, that's never going to go away. I'm not going to hide or shy away from it, but I want my job and focus to be just to go out and play and whatever way I can help us win, that's what I want to focus on."
In the IronBirds' season opener Tuesday night at Ripken Stadium, Ripken went 1-for-4 as the team's designated hitter in Aberdeen's 11-2 loss to Hudson Valley. But it represented a new beginning for Ripken. He feels he has finally shaken the injuries that marred his first two pro seasons, and now has one full year of experience under his belt. And before 2016, Ripken didn't play much baseball in three of his previous four seasons.
After graduating from Gilman in 2012, he chose to go to baseball power South Carolina, but was redshirted his first season there. Ripken transferred to a junior college in Florida – Indian River Community College – and a strong season there led the Nationals to draft him in the 15th round in 2014.
Ripken's first pro season in 2014 lasted just 16 games because he injured his right ankle rounding second base during a rookie-level Gulf Coast League game. He rehabilitated the injury, but hurt the ankle again taking a secondary lead the following spring, and that eventually led to surgery in April that cost him most of the 2015 season. Over his first two pro seasons, he played just 44 games.
Finally healthy for the first time as a pro, the left-handed-hitting Ripken batted a combined .201/.241/.254 at two levels in 2016. He hit just .190/.212/.239 in 43 games with Hagerstown, the Nationals' Low-A club, before being sent down to Short-A Auburn to finish out the year. Despite the lack of success, Ripken said he has learned a lot from his three minor league seasons and doesn't take the opportunity the Orioles have given him for granted.
"I think as you get into professional baseball, it obviously becomes a job and you want to perform well and as it works, you have to play well to keep moving and get better," Ripken said. "But sometimes you get lost and you forget about why you're doing this and you have to enjoy those moments. I was injured a lot my first two years in 2014 and 2015 with two ankle injuries. I missed a lot of time and I kind of got away from why I loved the game. So definitely this year, having this second opportunity, [it's] just being patient with the game and enjoying the moment and trying to stay in the present and just see what happens."
Physically, Ripken said he feels great. He believes he has found the routine necessary to withstand the rigors of a minor league season.
"Coming into this year, I feel great," he said. "That's continued on. I've learned through the process of recovering and all the people I worked with training and rehabbing is what I need to do to keep my body in shape and what works for me. Everyone has a different routine to stay limber and stay healthy. I think I've found mine and I think I'm ready to roll."
Still, it's difficult not to see the similarities between Ripken and his father. His facial features – especially his blue eyes – make you think you might be talking to Cal in his 20s. Whether intentional or not, he shares some mannerisms, from the polished way he talks to the tall way he stands in the batter's box with his 6-foot-6 frame, albeit from the left side.
While Ryan Ripken now realizes those comparisons will always come, he has found that maybe it's back home where he can just be himself.
"I think it's just to really be patient and not be my harshest critic," Ripken said. "Growing up, all of us are our harshest critics. Every time we do something, we're the first one to take blame and be a little hard on yourself. And with me, I felt like with the [Ripken] name, I was a little harsher because I felt there was a certain expectation.
"But I've gotten to the point in my life where I just want to be Ryan and I'm going to just accept the ups and downs that happen in the game. In baseball, physically a lot of the guys up here have talent. Everybody who gets into this system, or professional baseball, has talent. And it comes down to mentally figuring out what works for you. For me, it's just being patient and not being so hard on yourself. This game is hard enough."