Cal Ripken Sr., who died yesterday at Johns Hopkins Oncology Center in Baltimore at age 63 after a long battle with cancer, spent nearly four decades in baseball as a player, scout, coach and manager in the Baltimore Orioles organization. But mostly, he will be remembered as the father of Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., and as the man who played the biggest role in forging the work ethic that led his son to play in 2,632 consecutive games and become one of the most respected and adored people in sports.
It's not a bad legacy.
Those in and around the Orioles organization love to tell two stories about the elder Ripken. There was the time that the hand crank on his tractor engine flew off and smacked him in the forehead, opening a sizable gash. Rather than going to the hospital for stitches, he simply tied a bandage firmly around his head to stop the bleeding and continued.
And there was the time that a groundhog was eating his garden, so he headed out one morning at dawn with a folding chair, a newspaper, coffee, cigarettes and a shotgun. He was more than ready when the little troublemaker finally showed up.
There were no shortcuts for him. It was all about hard work and dedication and perseverance, whether it was his life's work – baseball – or one of his hobbies such as golf or gardening.
It was about getting up after you'd been knocked down. Once, as the Orioles' third-base coach, the excitable Ripken Sr. began to sprint across the infield to argue an umpire's call at second base during a game in Cleveland. The Indians players didn't see him and began the ritual tossing of the ball around the infield. A throw caught Ripken square in the head and knocked him off his feet. Ripken simply got up and continued to his argument as if nothing had happened.
"It hit me in the right place," he said good-naturedly after that game. Then-Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald noted that the ball hadn't left a mark on Ripken's forehead and said with a laugh: "You can't bruise leather."
In his 1997 book, "The Only Way I Know," Ripken Jr. wrote: "My father loved every minute of his work, I'm sure, and he is, by nature, a hard-working man. His motto was, 'If you didn't want to work, you shouldn't have hired out.'
"He said this to his kids as we spent hours at the card table on rainy days matching the nuts and bolts he had stored in coffee cans for just such a rainy day, and he said this to his baseball players. He also said to them, 'It's like a bank, men. You can't take out more than you put in.'‚"
"Senior," as he usually was called (even by his sons) on a baseball diamond, spent 36 years in the Orioles organization. He played in the minor leagues from 1957 to 1964, never reaching the majors. He was a minor league manager for 14 seasons in such places as Leesburg, Fla.; Appleton, Wis.; Aberdeen, S.D.; Elmira, N.Y.; Rochester, N.Y., and Asheville, N.C. There were big-city stops in Miami and Dallas mixed in.
He was a wizard with a fungo bat and a strike-throwing machine as a batting-practice pitcher, and he was a storehouse of baseball knowledge. He was one of the people who, at the grass-roots level, made the Orioles baseball's model blue-collar franchise between the late 1960s and early '80s.
They were the anti-New York Yankees. They didn't give big-money contracts to free agent players, because they didn't have to. They groomed players in their minor league system and they won by playing sound, no-frills baseball. They played the same way from their rookie league team to their big league team, and Ripken Sr. was one of the best teachers of that "Oriole Way," as they proudly called it.
"Senior was as big a part of the Oriole Way as anyone," current Orioles manager Ray Miller said a few years ago.
Cal Jr. grew up around ballparks, learning to play the game the proper way and hoping that he would be good enough to earn a living as a minor league player. One of the things that drew Junior to baseball was that it allowed him to spend time with Senior.
"He said several times over the years that he spent more time with his players than he did with his own children, and that he feared he had neglected us at times because of his job," the younger Ripken wrote in his book. "But I don't feel that way about Dad's absence. I missed him when he was gone, but he was always there in the way that counts. I'm not bitter, nor do I feel some gaping hole in my psyche.
"I just remember missing him sometimes. One reason I'm so adamant today about spending as much time as possible at home with my own kids, one of the reasons I can't see myself as a manager after I retire, is that I didn't have that time with my own father. He did what he had to do to support his family, and he didn't have many options, but I do, and I'm going to make sure I'm more available for my two kids."
The Ripkens became baseball's First Family in 1987, when Senior became the first man to manage two of his sons – Bill was Cal Jr.'s double-play partner for six seasons at second base – on the same major league team.
It always had been a family affair. A week or so before Junior broke Yankees great Lou Gehrig's all-time record for consecutive games played on Sept. 6, 1995, Senior and his wife Vi got in a truck with a visitor and drove from their home in Aberdeen, Md., around the corner to Aberdeen High School. Vi stood by a soccer goal post and talked about how home plate had been there when Junior played there, and about how she would watch Junior play baseball on one field and his sister Ellen play softball on another.
Senior and Vi remained straightforward people unaffected by being the parents of a hometown legend. On that same day in '95, they took a guest to their favorite diner in Aberdeen. Senior had a Schlitz with his corned beef sandwich, and he and Vi puffed away on cigarettes while they spoke.
"Cal has given me a lot of credit for a lot of things," Senior, who watched his son break Gehrig's record from a box at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, said that day. "I don't deserve that credit. He deserves it. He's the one who went out and did these things.
"Cal has talked about how he got his work ethic from me. Maybe in some small way, that's true. I was always one to say, 'Do the job right. If you're going to hoe the garden, hoe it right.' It's the same in baseball. Don't just practice. Practice right, and you'll do things right in the game. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect."
The Orioles fired Ripken Sr. as their manager six games into their record-setting, 21-game losing streak to open the 1988 season. They dismissed him as their third-base coach after the '92 season.
The wounds never quite healed for the family. Those who know Junior say that he never felt quite the same about the Orioles after his father's firings.
But Senior moved on. He softened around the edges. The gruffness that once had been on display regularly for outsiders dissipated. He was a gracious host when he and Vi entertained one media member after another in September 1995.
He didn't return to work for the Orioles or any other major league team following his 1992 firing. But he and Vi would show up in Florida during spring training, having driven down from Maryland.
He played a lot of golf and built a pair of regulation, tournament-caliber horseshoe pits behind his house. He worked his garden. He ran baseball camps for children, pitching all nine innings for both teams in scrimmages. He admitted that he missed the game. But he seemed content, not bitter.
"I wasn't happy about being fired," he once said. "But you have to abide by the decision. The sun came up the next day. And it's come up every day since then.
" . . . There are two things I always say you have to do in baseball, and that's adjust and readjust. You have to do the same thing in life. You have to accept things for what they are. I don't worry about the water under that dam over here because I can't do anything about it, and I don't worry about crossing that bridge over there because I haven't gotten to it yet."
In addition to his wife, Cal Jr. and Bill, survivors included a son, Fred; a daughter Ellen, and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements had not been announced last night.
Cal Ripken's Sr & Jr