At first, the games of pepper were just a way for father and son to warm up before their workouts each morning.
But before long, it was clear to Ryan Ripken that his father, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., just liked to have a bat in his hands again.
The sharp ground balls off his shins aside, the younger Ripken believes those daily sessions in the run-up to his inclusion in the Orioles’ spring training picture were the perfect preparation for another challenge as he inches closer to his major league dream.
“It’s probably the most time my dad and I had been able to work with each other consecutively in my lifetime,” said Ryan Ripken, who will be in Sarasota, Florida, when major league workouts begin Monday. “Even just bigger than baseball, it was great to be able to hang with my dad. To train with baseball and work with him each day was a blessing.”
It was during one of those workouts that Ripken got — and missed — the call earlier this month to inform him that he’d be invited to Sarasota along with the big leaguers this week.
Ripken is listed as a camp reserve and will be based primarily at the team’s minor league complex at Twin Lakes Park, though the team has said such players will be back-and-forth to the major league complex when full-squad workouts begin Monday. He presumably will appear in some Grapefruit League games as well.
For Ripken, it’s a chance to continue pursuing a dream that in many ways was bequeathed to him at birth. He’s chosen to exhaust every avenue he can to achieve it.
“I don’t want to look back and have the what-ifs,” Ripken said. “I want to be able to help the major league team and play in the major leagues one day. I don’t want to look back and cut myself short because of weird times, and having self-talk and doubting yourself. I’m just happy to be back.”
Ripken, 27, has worn that famous name on his back at several stops on his baseball journey. A Gilman graduate, he spent a redshirt year at South Carolina before transferring to Indian River Community College in Florida for one season. He was a 12th-round draft pick of the Washington Nationals in 2014 but dealt with ankle injuries that required surgery for most of his time there and was released in spring training before the 2017 season.
He was quickly signed to a minor league contract with the Orioles to play for the Aberdeen IronBirds, which is owned by Ripken Baseball, and has steadily climbed the Orioles’ system since.
He hit a career-best .276 between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2019 and was part of the Baysox’s playoff surge in the second half of the season. After the pandemic wiped out the 2020 minor league season, he enters 2021 ticketed for the high minors again and is the most tenured player on the first base depth chart in the system.
He’s struggled with injuries over the years, including an oblique injury in 2019, but feels as if that year was still the closest he’s come in his search for the best version of himself on the baseball field. A healthy year in 2020 has him hopeful there’s more to come.
The sessions with his father, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer last February but has fully recovered, are only part of the reason why. They’d worked together some in the past, but their schedules made it hard to do consistently. Neither traveled like they usually would, so they had a standing session with each other every morning.
Working from the player development plan the Orioles gave Ripken, the two would do tee work, front-flips and batting practice, plus any drills the club prescribed. They’d move on to footwork and more efficient movements in the field.
“You work on stuff, and you take a break to give yourself a little breather, and you just talk about one conversation leads to another and you’re having this really open dialogue,” Ripken said. “I think that was one of the coolest things, being able to really break down and talk about what happened, what I felt, what I saw, what he saw. It really helped the days where things weren’t going as well to get back on track.”
When they’d try to work together in the past, Ripken acknowledged that he wasn’t always ready to accept what his father was trying to teach him.
“I’m a big feel guy, and he is too,” Ripken said. “We’ll get technical with our mechanics, but until you talk about feeling something, like with hitting, when you are trying to wait back and have a little bit longer of a pause or hang back … you can understand the concept, but until you start doing that consistently, you won’t really get it. I started to get that concept the last couple of years, and I can feel what he’s talking about now. That’s kind of the cool thing. We can really kind of dissect and go into that.
“It’s a lot of combinations, to put the words with the actual feeling. Now it’s all starting to make sense. That to me was one of the cool parts. And honestly, we’re both still learning a ton. The game is the same, but it has still changed in a lot of ways. Constantly trying to learn and get better has been a cool process.”
Ripken also worked with Tom Eller, a hitting coach in the organization, once or twice a week. But that wasn’t the only instance in which Ripken’s own pursuits meshed well with the team’s new player development resources.
After he was released by the Nationals, he started working on mindfulness and controlling his thought process to battle self-doubt and distractions. He said when his mind is elsewhere or unwelcome thoughts are creeping in, he acknowledges them before refocusing on the task at hand.
Ripken credits the Orioles for bringing in mental skills coach Kathryn Rowe last year and holding virtual sessions for their minor leaguers through the coronavirus shutdown. He believes mindset is a separator as to who makes the big leagues and who doesn’t.
“The ones who have the most success are the ones who can make the adjustments and go through the hardships,” Ripken said.
Despite his slow climb through the minors, Ripken still seeks that goal of making the big leagues for himself. He admits to wondering whether the lost 2020 season would mean the end of his career, and took some online classes in economics and business analytics this fall. He doesn’t give much thought to what life after baseball will look like, though.
“Right now, I’m going to keep focusing on being the best player I can be for the Orioles organization,” Ripken said.
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