It was right there on my bedroom wall as a kid: carefully clipped from Sports Illustrated, a picture of Cal Ripken, Jr., hand on hip, standing against a backdrop of summer twilight awaiting his next turn at bat. If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s and were into sports, it’s likely Ripken was one of your heroes. If you’re a little older (or younger) than that, you might recognize him as a transcendent talent and a role model. A pillar of consistency for 21 seasons as a shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, Ripken was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility after compiling 3,184 hits and 431 home runs, inspiring fans with a relentless work ethic and focus that allowed him to play in a record 2,632 consecutive games.
Some of the baseball cards I’ve collected provide a glimpse of Ripken’s unique family life: early in his career, he played on an Orioles team managed by his father, Cal Sr., while brother Bill formed the other half of a Ripken double-play combination at second base. But mass-produced glossy cardboard rectangles don’t tell the whole story. And while Ripken retired in 2001 and has remained active through Ripken Baseball, a company dedicated to growing the game at the grassroots level, and his work with the Cal. Ripken, Sr. Foundation, which uses baseball as a tool to help underserved youth, his own children, Rachel and Ryan, have grown up in the years since. These personal relationships and experiences help shape the stories in the Cal Ripken, Jr. All-Stars series, novels Ripken wrote for young adults with Baltimore Sun scribe Kevin Cowherd.
Ripken loved to read as a kid and found himself consuming all manner of things sports-related: biographies, magazines, even programs from the Double-A team in Asheville, NC his father managed. “I remember you had a limited ability to read about baseball,” says Ripken. “That motivated me with this series. You can communicate such a great, wonderful message that is timeless. A message about having a temper, being bullied, being a bit oversized, or coming in from another part of the country as the new kid.”
The newest book Squeeze Play (Disney-Hyperion) is due out March 4.
The preceding book, Wild Pitch, (released last year,) tells a story through the eyes of Robbie Hammond, a young pitcher who can’t find the strike zone. Robbie has the ability; he throws hard and he’s a former league all-star. However, he struggles with the chilling memory of accidentally drilling an opposing hitter, the vocal opinions of his teammates, and his relationship with his dad, a Baltimore policeman who also happens to be the coach of the team. Even when his dad tries to encourage him, Robbie feels like he’s being criticized.
I asked Ripken if he experienced that with his own dad, or got the sense his own kids felt that way about him.
“Yes and yes,” Ripken replies, citing his dad’s role as jack-of-all-trades baseball instructor in a professional capacity. “When I was a kid, some of the emotional issues between father and son were taken away because I learned from watching him instruct somebody else. The emotion starts to get into it when you’re dealing one-on-one. We’re more sensitive when dealing with our loved ones. You want to make him proud and his criticisms are constructive in the way he gives them but they don’t feel constructive.”
Ripken found himself on the other side of things with his own son, Ryan, now a baseball player at the University of South Carolina, “You have to be very careful how you give [criticism] to him because that relationship is sensitive. All the positive things you say, if you say something that’s a little bit negative, it can unwind all the stuff he already knows.”
There is also pressure carrying on the family name in the game of baseball. “As you learn, as you develop, you go through all kinds of mistakes. People look for him all the time and judge him all the time,” he says of the microscope. “I wish I could take that [pressure] away from him and say, go be whoever you want to be.’”
The perception of being the “coach’s son,” is also something we discuss. Robbie’s teammates give him a hard time about it in the book. Ripken’s own dad had to put his professional responsibilities before fatherhood in the Orioles dugout. Later, Ripken himself wound up coaching Ryan in high school. He knows it can be frustrating.
“When Dad was asked the question how’s it feel to have two sons on the team?’ He would answer by saying, Well I look at all the guys on the roster as my sons.’ And I’d want to scream. I wanted the acknowledgement that I was his son. But when I came around after hitting a home run, my first home run, and shook hands with dad at third base you could see the gleam in his eye that was probably different from the other players.”
As a coach, “you have to be aware of the amount of time and energy you spend on all the kids. I know I was out there early for Ryan, throwing to him probably a little bit more,” he says. “But there’s a fairness; you want to give everyone the same opportunity.”
Cal Ripken, Sr. had a legendary reputation as a baseball instructor for an Orioles organization that often sat atop the American League standings, regularly outplaying the Yankees with a mix of homegrown talent and sound fundamentals. Cal Sr.’s role meant Cal Jr. had to make the most of time with his dad.
“Baseball took my dad away from me as a kid. He probably saw parts of two games between the ages of 8 and 18 because he wasn’t available at that time.” He remembers, “there were four of us kids, and we all wanted to spend time with dad…I would volunteer for things I didn’t want to go to [if] it meant spending time in the car with dad. That was alone time and that was important. You can’t lose sight of that as a dad; there’s alone time that you need with each one of your kids, no matter how old they are.”
In his own career, Ripken was a never a free agent, one of the rare players who spent his entire career with one team. “I valued that stability. I valued the kids being able to go to the same school all the way through and not having to move, not having to uproot….I can’t really put a money number on that.”
“The baseball schedule is what it is; you’re on the opposite side of your kids’ schedule, so you find pockets of time when you can see them. I know I had more resources than my dad. I could make sure my kids came to spring training. On off days, I could fly back and see them.” He credits his wife, Kelly, in helping to maintain that stability, and remembers the times he had to make it work. “I remember many times you’d get home at 3 o’clock in the morning from a trip and if you didn’t get up to take your kids to school, you wouldn’t see them. I remember biting the bullet and getting up because you value those times.”
“To me, all time you spend with your dad is quality time. All time you spend with your parents is quality time, any time they’re there to offer perspective and listen.” The way he does that is important. “Tim Hulett, a teammate of mine…said kids have an ongoing tape that’s recording everything they see all day long. He said, who do you want on that tape: you, or someone else?’ I always remembered that.”
Ripken is dedicated to his craft. It’s evident on the back of his baseball card and in the reputations of the organizations he’s involved with today. But he’s still learning about being a dad, even with the kids out of the house.
“My daughter’s 23 and my boy is 19,” he says. “In many ways you want them to grow; once they’re out of the house, you start to give them a little more rope. One thing they’ve taught me is they still have a need to be close. You can’t take that for granted thinking that I’m doing what’s best for them by giving them a little more rope. They teach me of the need for family, how they need me and I need them.”
Squeeze Play is due out March 4. Wild Pitch is currently available through Disney-Hyperion Books along with the other books in the New York Times bestselling Cal Ripken, Jr. All-Stars series, Hothead and Super-sized Slugger.