JUGS Sports | Newsletter 35: Cal Ripken Tribute

   A Tribute to Cal Ripken Sr. & Cal Ripken Jr.

There are two books that belong in the library of every young ballplayer. They are The Only Way I Know, by Cal Ripken, Jr., and The Ripken Way, by Cal Sr. Each book is available from "Just Books," which can be reached, by phone, at 1.800.874.4568.

This special edition of TJN is comprised of excerpts from the two above-mentioned books. We hope you enjoy reading these excerpts and will learn how to play the game we all love, just a little better.

-Rob Nelson, Past Editor, The JUGS Newsletter.

The Only Way I Know, by Cal Ripken, Jr., begins this way:

When I was called to the big leagues with the Baltimore Orioles in 1981, I sat on the bench for the first time in my life and, I have to say, this wasn't what I had in mind for my career.

My father was the Orioles' third-base coach, but my last name wasn't going to help me win a starting position. It doesn't work that way in the majors; in fact, growing up in a baseball family only made me more aware of how it sometimes does work: players-good players-traded or discarded into the minor leagues or relegated to the far corner of the bench, never to be heard from again.

Now, it's true that I was one of the top prospects in one of the best organizations in the game, and I felt I'd earned my shot and belonged up here, but I hadn't proved it yet, and lots of players max-out in Triple-A. That's as good as they're going to get. I knew that.

So I chewed more sunflower seeds in two months in '81 than I had in three and a half years in the minors; I watched my new teammates, who'd won 100 games the previous season without my help.

I thought about what my manager, Earl Weaver, had said about my immediate prospects: "He has some pretty good players in front of him" and I wondered, "How can I ever break into this lineup, and if and when I do, how can I be sure to stay there?"

I came up with two answers: play well and play every day. If I do get the opportunity, don't give anyone else with the same desire and motivation the same opportunity. I didn't want Earl and the organization to have any reasonable option but to play me.

That sounds cold; but, mainly, it's just old-school, the way my father taught me. In the minors, I knew the guys who didn't want to become good friends with other players at the same position who might take their jobs; I knew outfielders who preferred hanging out with the pitchers.

That's old, old-school, and I didn't feel that way, but I did take a proprietary interest in my position. As a ballplayer you have to because, until you become established, baseball gives you nothing in terms of income or job security, and it can take away your entire professional life in a heartbeat. If baseball didn't invent downsizing, it perfected the practice, which happens at every level on every team every spring.

The truth is, breaking Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played was partly an unintentional result of that early and then ongoing determination to keep as much of my destiny as possible in my own hands. Overall, I'm a guy who likes control. I even find myself dissatisfied with instructions of some brands of microwave popcorn.

"Pop on High setting for two minutes"? That doesn't do me any good at all. With any new brand or with any new oven-in the houses my wife and I rented for spring training, for example-I proceed logically, setting the timer for five minutes and listening carefully.

When the corn's ready, I check the elapsed time. After one more trial run, just to make sure, I'm all set with this brand.

This is the way I go about almost everything, and sometimes my wife or friends or teammates tease me about going overboard. But to me, this is just taking care of business.

I'm instinctively analytical-something else for friends to rib me about. After I did break into the Orioles' lineup as the third-baseman in 1982, the year after I came up, Earl Weaver soon moved me to shortstop, and there's been speculation ever since about moving me back to third base.

That's a long story, which we'll get into when the time comes, but in 1996, when I did play six games at third in the middle of the season, without preparation, it was disconcerting. In Boston, I found myself standing at the plate after fouling a ball down the third-base line and wondering why Tim Naehring, the Red Sox third baseman, was playing so far off that line. Was there some trick to the configuration of the stands at Fenway Park I didn't know about? Should I be playing that far over as well? Those aren't the thoughts you want at the batting box, but they're the kind I can't keep out.

For 1997, I've been moved back to third base permanently. I'm seriously competitive and persistent. I'm determined to play that position as well as I had in the minors, and as well as I had in Baltimore before Earl moved me up to shortstop.

Baseball fans from outside Baltimore who tuned in to the hoopla surrounding streak week in September 1995, probably thought that the media and the fans had been on my side from the day I did crack that Oriole lineup in 1982. They probably didn't know that in 1998, when the team was struggling and I was playing with a one-year contract and trade rumors were flying, some observers suggested that perhaps a change of scenery for me would benefit all concerned.

Four years later, when I signed my next contract after "protracted negotiations" and during a slump-in the end, I went 73 games without a homer, which was grim-the Oriole front office flashed the terms of the deal on the big screen at the new ballpark at Camden Yards before the game, and heard more than a few scattered boos.

Maybe I did deserve some boos that day, but not because I needed a day off, like some people said. Had I needed a day off the previous year, 1991, when I hit .323 with 34 homers and 114 runs batted in? I guess not. So when the organization makes a financial commitment to a multi-year deal with me, when I'm able to play every day and make contributions to the defense, my instinct during a batting slump is to buckle down, take extra batting practice, and prove the critics wrong.

In short, playing 2,131 consecutive ball games and breaking Lou Gehrig's record had nothing to do with extraordinary talent, which I don't have, or a bionic body, which I don't have either, or a burning desire for the spotlight, which can be fun at times and is really gratifying, but has its drawbacks as well.

No, when I look back over those fourteen seasons of consecutive games with the Baltimore Orioles, I have to agree with Billy Ripken's blunt conclusion. Billy knows me because he's my younger brother, and he knows baseball because he's also a major leaguer, and he says I broke that record because I could.

The Ripken Way, by Cal Sr. and Larry Burke, is a manual for baseball and life. Cal Jr. had these words to say in the foreword:

When the Orioles moved to a new spring training site, they needed to decide how to set up the ball fields, where the dormitory was going to go, and so forth. Dad always took on the problems and became the foreman of the job, but he was also out there doing the work, too.

He'd actually be digging out fields, measuring the bases, cutting the diamond, leveling the infield, putting down the grass seed, pouring the concrete for the dugouts, and putting the backstops up.

That's so typical of him. When the Orioles moved their spring training camp from Fernandina Beach, north of Jacksonville, to Biscayne College (which is now St. Thomas University) in the Miami suburb of Opa-Locka, Dad supervised the construction crew-and did a lot of the work himself. This was all the while spring training was going on, and he was running the camp at the same time! He'd be a baseball guy-starting with his morning meetings and all the way through to the game or whatever activities ended the day-and then he'd go to work on the construction job. He wouldn't even take his uniform off, he'd just take a little time to eat a bit of a sandwich or something and then jump on the tractor. Sometimes he's work so long that he had to turn on the tractor's headlights.

People can talk about ethics, but the more they talk about it, the less they do. My dad's not a talker, he's a doer. So I just watched him, and that's how I found out how to do the right thing. I learned that if I wanted something done the right way, and I wanted it done to my own high standards, only I could do it. And I think that's a great, great trait.

He passed on his love of baseball to me in the same way: by example. As a kid, I had a chance to witness it by going to the ballpark with him and being in his environment. Sometimes, at home, it could seem a little like business.

He had a lot of administrative responsibilities, such as typing out paperwork for the organization. He was required to file daily reports on each player, in triplicate, and include the box score from the local newspaper.

I still remember Old One-Finger, as Mom called him, pecking away on that Smith-Corona. He didn't have much time to play with us as he would've liked, but we could see his joy for sports when we had the opportunity.

When I had a chance to ride in the car with him to the ballpark, I could see his whole world open up. I wouldn't call it a personality change, but once Dad put that uniform on, there was this comfort, this joy, this passion for who he was and what he was doing that was just a great thing to see.

He used to say, "There's something to putting this uniform on. These are my work clothes." And he really meant it.

Here are Cal Sr.'s words from The Ripken Way:

A few months back, I got a call from a young guy who had played ball for me years ago in the Baltimore Orioles' minor-league system. He had been released after about three years in our organization. He had some ability, but he just wasn't blessed with enough to continue on through the minor leagues. There was always going to be somebody coming along who was better than he was. But he got to Class C ball before he was released; at the time there was Class D, C, B, A, Double A, Triple A, and the major leagues.

He's now in the business for himself, in a completely different field. And in the process of our conversation, he told me, "The things that you taught me in baseball-the things that you as an individual stressed to me-I still apply every day." Well, that gives me a lot of satisfaction, there's no question. And, sure, I tend to glow a little bit, because now I know that I accomplished something for the good, and it came out all right.

That's why I always tell my players, when you talk about baseball and life, they're the same thing. Baseball's just a walk of life. Everything you do in this game you do in life, and everything you do in life you do in this game.

Some great memories that Cal Jr. has from when he was a small boy, from The Ripken Way:

My goal when I was a kid was always to get time with my father by myself. When he was managing in the minor leagues, Dad frequently ran promotional clinics for the club on Saturday mornings. The idea was to bring the community and the baseball team together by teaching the sport. My sister and brothers and I started out going to these clinics with my dad, but we soon realized how boring they were. Elly, Fred, and Bill would say, "It's kind of fun to go there, but sitting there in the hot sun in the bleachers, just listening to Dad talk over and over again about the same thing, that's not fun. I'd rather stay home and do something else." I, on the other hand, recognized an opening.

So when my dad would come in our bedrooms on Saturday morning and tap each of us on the leg and say, "You want to go with me to the clinic?" you'd hear, "No." "No." "No." But I'd say, "Yeah, sure," even though I felt the same way as my sister and two brothers. I didn't want to go, either, but I realized that I'd be in the car by myself with Dad for however long the ride was to and from the clinic. The middle part-sitting through the clinic-was a sacrifice, but in the end, it was a very valuable sacrifice, because while he was teaching everybody else, he was teaching me at the same time. I remember those moments from my childhood-the end of the day in the manager's office, the car rides-as the most important times.

When I was growing up, my father couldn't be around enough to be my day-to-day coach. Mom was always there to take me to events, because Dad had baseball obligations. But once I started to advance to the higher levels of the game, high school and beyond, I began to relate some of my baseball difficulties to my dad. I could tell him something was wrong, and even over the phone he could almost always say something that would correct the problem. He'd ask, "Where are you hitting the ball? What happens when you swing? What do you feel? He'd provide a diagnosis, like a doctor, without even seeing me. Based on all his experience, he'd be able to offer a solution.

It always amazed me. I'd say, "I'm popping the ball to third," or, "I'm popping the ball up to first," and he'd say, "You need to wait a little longer," or, "It sounds to me like you're staring at the pitcher instead of just letting your eyes relax. Look at the second-baseman and then take your eyes back to the pitcher," or, "Concentrate on taking the bat back just a little bit and keeping your front shoulder in." Those little things always seemed to fix the problem.

Here are Cal Jr.'s thoughts on team chemistry and talent, in the excerpt from The Only Way I Know:

I believe that team chemistry is formed mainly at the ballpark: on the field throughout the experience of success and failure, then in the clubhouse by talking about and analyzing the successes and failures. Winning instills confidence and provides a blueprint for the future; losing teaches you how to cope and regroup.

To me, chemistry is a blending of individual responsibilities into a team focused solely on winning. Everything is directed at winning. Stability within an organization and team helps build chemistry. You know the guys, they know you; you know how to deal with them, they know how to deal with you.

You focus on good communication. Misunderstandings are cut to a minimum. Without a doubt, constant turnover does impede chemistry.

Chemistry is a necessary part of winning, but not the largest part. Talent is. Talent rules in big-league baseball. Without it, you can't compete over the 162-game season.

As an exercise before each season, my father and Jimmy Williams used to match up for each team in the league the eighth starting position players, the designated hitter, role players, five starting pitchers, middle relievers, and the closer. I've also done these match-ups.

If you like the Orioles' guys in eighteen of the twenty-five positions, you have to like the Orioles to beat that team in the standing. I'm not saying that the final standing will reflect the match-ups in every instance, because a lot of match-ups will be close, some guys will have unexpected career years and others will have off-seasons, but talent does come first.

All the intangibles and team chemistry and managerial magic in the world can accomplish only so much. A team can overachieve only up to a point.

When senior took over as manager of the Orioles in 1987, he was adamant about preparation and the execution of fundamentals, but when he was asked if he was the kind of manager his players would run through walls for, he quipped, "Rather than have twenty-four men run through walls, I'd rather have fifteen who hit over the wall."

Given the talent, you need experience, individually and collectively. To win championships, you have to win one-run games; and talent and experience allow you to execute at a high level. In a bunting situation in the eighth inning, runners on first and second, the winning team has the ability in August or September to pounce on anything but a perfect bunt and turn it into a force at third, and maybe a double play: it has the talent, experience, and guts to make that play.

I think immediately of the great play the Yankees' Andy Pettitte made against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth game of the 1996 World Series, throwing out John Smoltz at third on the attempted sacrifice in the sixth inning. Pettitte is a young guy, but he had the poise to make that play anyway, one of the big turning points in that series. On a championship team, poise is contagious.

Are you a ballplayer between the ages of 8 and 18? If you are, you can learn to play ball The Ripken Way at the Cal Ripken Baseball Schools.

Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Bill (himself a ten-year big leaguer) have assembled a core staff of their former baseball teammates and coaches, along with current pro players, combining over 75 years of major league experience and education of the game, to teach baseball The Ripken Way.

Because of Cal Sr.ís impact on athletes of all ages, this school continues to focus on developing the skills of young ballplayers.

Through the direction of Cal Jr. and Bill, the instructions will pass on the fundamentals of the game, in addition to the values of hard work, persistence, preparation, and teamwork. These are values that will last a lifetime.

For more information, log on to RipkenBaseball.com.

 

If you are serious about pursuing your Big League Dreams, Cal and Bill Ripken can help you out.