If it was 15 minutes before batting practice, Richie Bancells knew where he had to be. It was time for Cal Ripken Jr.’s unspoken appointment.
As Ripken marched his way to a record 2,131st consecutive game that will have its 25th anniversary celebrated Sunday at Camden Yards, Bancells served as the Orioles’ head athletic trainer through much of The Streak and beyond. If Ripken was playing, he needed his ankles taped, and he was always playing.
“I could almost not even have to look at the clock,” Bancells recalled this week from his Parkton home. “If it was gonna be a 4:30 [batting practice], at 4:15, he’d plop himself on top of that taping table.”
Such was the consistency of Ripken, who broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record Sept. 6, 1995, then played 501 more. Bancells first got to witness the traits that The Streak was built on — “his dedication, his work ethic, his passion for the game” — on what was both men’s first day in professional baseball in 1978: Ripken as a debuting player for the Orioles’ rookie-league team in Bluefield, West Virginia, and Bancells as its trainer.
Bancells, 64, marvels at how much time has passed. He retired after the 2017 season as a member of the Orioles’ Hall of Fame. Ripken turned 60 last week.
“There’s a sense of pride from the standpoint that I was with him for so long,” Bancells said.
Ripken reached the majors in 1981 and began The Streak the next year. Bancells wasn’t far behind, joining the Orioles’ training staff in 1984.
The next year, The Streak, then just a streak, faced its first test. In Game 444, Ripken rolled his ankle on a play at second base. An exhibition against the Naval Academy the next day offered brief time to recover before an official contest, but Ripken arrived at the ballpark the day after with an ankle that left Bancells uncertain. He explained the risks of worsening the injury, but Ripken was adamant he take the field.
“He really believes that he was put here to go to the ballpark every day and play ball,” Bancells said. “I just didn’t think he’d make it on the field, but in typical Cal fashion, when the game came around, he just said, ‘OK, let’s just tape it up as best you can, I’ll go out and play, and after the game, we’ll treat it again.’ That’s just his approach. He wasn’t gonna let it keep him from being on the field.
“I can tell you most ankles wouldn’t have played.”
Most ankles didn’t belong to Ripken. And as Ripken sees it, most ankles didn’t get taped by Bancells.
“I had that kind of confidence in Richie that I would do whatever he told me to do,” Ripken said. “Richie probably was the quiet MVP behind the scenes that nobody really knew.”
That trust was nearly put to the test in 1993, when Ripken suffered what Bancells said was an MCL sprain during a brawl against the Seattle Mariners. While other players came out of the scuffle needing X-rays and stitches, Ripken finished the game with nary a complaint. But the next morning, he called Bancells, informing him of his knee soreness.
After a visit to the team orthopedist confirmed the sprain, Ripken met Bancells at the ballpark to test the knee. Inside the batting cages, Bancells tossed him balls, left and right, simulating the movements Ripken would have to make at shortstop.
“It didn’t look good, not to my eyes, and I worried tremendously about it,” Bancells said. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was in the back of my mind, ‘Am I gonna be the person? How do I handle this, telling him it’s in his best interest not to play?’”
As he did with the ankle injury nearly a decade before, Bancells laid out the risks, the potential to injure the knee worse and keep Ripken from playing even longer. But he left Ripken with the final say. Trust works both ways.
“Most times, you would instantly put this player on the [injured list] and take care of it until it’s done, but he was dead determined to play,” Bancells said. “I’ve been with Cal for so long. I trust his judgment implicitly. Many times, in my position, you give a veteran ballplayer the benefit of the doubt.
“In amazement, he didn’t make it worse.”
Bancells credited Ripken’s ability to play through injuries such as that one to being “a highly skilled athlete” with knowledge of how to protect his body on a day-to-day basis. The routine visits to the trainer’s room helped, too.
It was there that Ripken confided in Bancells as the record approached. Ripken, Bancells noted, didn’t only avoid major injuries; he dodged illnesses, too. But as Game 2,131 neared, Bancells sensed the attention that came with the pursuit getting to Ripken.
“I could see it exhausting him to the point where he had a low-grade fever,” Bancells said.
Ripken, of course, played through it and everything else.
“I’m taping his ankles one day, and he says, ‘They’re making the streak kind of a big deal, but you come to work every day, don’t you?’” Bancells said. “And I say, ‘Well, yeah, I do.’ He says, ‘Well, what’s the difference?’ He was equating himself to a lot of other people that go to work every day, that that’s what they do. I really believe that he didn’t see that any differently. It wasn’t any kind of magic thing. He wasn’t trying to prove anything. He just believed if he came to the ballpark, he would play the game.”
That’s all Ripken wanted to do. After he had done it more times consecutively than anyone else, as the celebration ended in the early hours of Sept. 7, 1995, he found Bancells as the trainer packed to head home and asked if he was in a hurry. Bancells had never felt rushed at 3 a.m., and he wasn’t going to then.
The two grabbed beers from the players’ lounge and took a seat. Bancells watched Ripken decompress as they spoke about anything but The Streak.
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Nearly 25 years later, they had another one of those talks. Last month, Ripken publicized that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in February, but after quick treatment and March surgery, he’s now cancer-free. When he heard the news, Bancells sent Ripken a text to wish him well, and minutes later, Ripken called.
As they spoke, Bancells realized the parallels between what Ripken dealt with in the spring and the injuries they faced together during his player career: He wanted to act quickly, get better and make sure he was ready for the next day.
“It does bring a lot of things into perspective,” Bancells said. “It’s part of life. It’s part of what all of us, a lot of people have to deal with in life, and the fact that none of us are really invincible. The fact that The Streak happened doesn’t make him invincible, and I don’t think he ever thought he was.
“But he did have these amazing healing powers.”
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