From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

The Only Way I Know

Am I proud of him? Well, sure, I’m proud of him as my son. But as a ballplayer, ask in fifteen years.

Cal Ripken Sr. on Cal Ripken Jr. at age twenty-two

I sat on the bench for the first time in my life when I was called to the big leagues with the Baltimore Orioles. This wasn’t what I had in mind for my career. So as I chewed more sunflower seeds in two months in 1981 than in three and a half years in the minors, I wondered, How can I break into this line-up and, if I do, 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 the same opportunity. I didn’t want the organization to have any reasonable option but to play me. That may sound cold, but it’s mostly old-school.

Some people will never understand why I go about things the way I do, and that’s okay. But I’ll keep going about them the same way until it’s proven that there’s a better way. To this day, the old-school “Oriole way” is the only way I know. And the person who taught me most about it, and about life, is that former Orioles coach and manager—my dad, Cal Ripken Sr.

My father started out as a promising ballplayer. I don’t claim any credit, but 1960—the year I was born—did turn out to be his greatest as a hitter. He was playing in the Three-I League in Appleton, Wisconsin. Dad was a catcher with a respectable batting average. But that year he hit his personal best, .281, with nine homers and seventy-four runs batted in.

Then, the following spring training, he injured his throwing shoulder. To stay in the game he shifted with typical practicality from playing to coaching and managing in the Orioles organization. He worked his way up through the minors and finally to the big leagues.

Years later I was to see firsthand the way Dad dealt with a major setback. On opening day 1988 I was having fun in the Orioles starting line-up as shortstop. My brother, Billy, was at second base. And our father was the manager. A father managing two sons on a team—a baseball first.

But just a week later, on April 12, I was driving to Memorial Stadium and heard on the radio that Senior—as I sometimes called him—had been fired just six games into the regular season. Six games!

When I came into the clubhouse, Dad had already left. I was deeply hurt for my father. I couldn’t imagine how painful this must have been for him, after being so loyal to the franchise for thirty-one years. He must have been angry and hurt beyond words. But he conducted himself with great dignity. The harshest thing he said publicly was, “I wasn’t happy about the thing.”

Later, Senior agreed to return the following year as third-base coach for the new manager, Frank Robinson. By way of explanation, Dad said with his usual dry understatement, “I guess you know I’m an Oriole.”

My father is, by nature, a hard-working man. During the summers when I was growing up, he was at the ballpark by early afternoon—weekends included, of course—not returning until late at night. Half the time he was off on a road trip with his team.

In the winters back home in Aberdeen, Maryland, Dad worked about as hard as in summer. Even now there’s not much money in minor-league baseball, and there was less when we were growing up. He managed a pharmacy, drove a delivery truck, worked at a local hardware store and lumberyard. He was out the door at dawn and then fell asleep on the couch after supper almost every night, dog-tired.

I can’t see myself as a manager after I retire because I’m adamant about spending time at home with my wife, Kelly, and our two kids. One reason is that I didn’t have much time with my own father. I missed him when he was gone, though he was always there in ways that counted.

Some of my best memories of Dad are from 1969 and ’70, when we were living in Rochester, New York, where my father managed the Red Wings. He’d come into my bedroom on Saturday mornings and shake me awake to see if I wanted to go to an early clinic he held with a couple of his players.

I usually went along, but not for the baseball. It was my chance to have Dad to myself on the rides, and I knew he enjoyed having me with him. I was nine years old.

For my tenth birthday, I took my first plane ride, joining Dad on the road for games against the Tidewater Tides and Richmond Braves—a real grown-up thing to do. I was with him all the time and wore a full uniform. It was the ultimate baseball field trip.

With Dad, everything was instructional. One snowy day he decided to help our neighbors by plowing the nearby streets, since the city crews were slow to get to us. He took me and my brother Fred to get the tractor.

Dad explained the right way to crank the engine and then warned against doing it wrong—windmilling the crank 360 degrees—because if the engine backfired it might throw the crank off. Meanwhile, I wondered, When am I ever going to have to crank a tractor? Maybe I even made a sarcastic remark.

After no luck cranking the right way, Dad said, “Now don’t you do this, but I’m going to windmill it.” Sure enough, the engine backfired, and the crank flew off and cracked Dad right on the forehead. Blood spurted out as he reached for a rag. I thought we would go to the hospital, but Dad just drove home, got a bandage and came back to plow the streets.

My father had his mottos and pronouncements. He’d tell his baseball players, “It’s like a bank, men. You can’t take out more than you put in.” I’m sure he still says this at the summer camp he runs.

Another favorite saying—“Do two million little things right, and the big things take care of themselves”—is the essence of the Oriole Way: pride in the fundamentals.

Yet Dad’s bluntness sometimes frustrates my mother. When I was in high school and Dad told reporters he looked on me as “just another prospect,” my mother was annoyed. Later when he announced the likelihood that I’d be drafted, she replied sarcastically, “I’m glad you noticed.”

When I was called to the majors, reporters asked my father if this was a dream come true. I knew what Senior would say, and he didn’t disappoint me: “I don’t dream. People say you have to have dreams, but what’s the use of dreaming if you can’t do the job?”

The father-son relationship is not a factor in the big leagues, as I learned the hard way. One day I called Dad just that— “Dad”—within earshot of some players, who then had a mocking refrain of their own every time the two of us were together. “Dad! Oh, Dad!”

They teased me pretty hard, and after that Dad became “Senior” or “No. 47” to me.

My father is a classic case of the guy with the tough exterior but melting inside. He’s one of those men who has strong feelings about hiding their feelings. Imagine my surprise when he finally let loose with emotion when the Orioles clinched the division title against Milwaukee in 1983. Dad, third-base coach at the time, poured a beer over my head. “I guess the father in me finally came out,” he told reporters.

Among the Ripken kids there’s even a theory that our father softened up in recent years. Asked in the old days about his greatest experience, Dad always said it hadn’t happened. After September 6, 1995, when I broke Lou Gehrig’s Iron Man record—playing 2,131 consecutive games—he said that now it probably had.

Maybe my father could have been a successful major-league catcher if he hadn’t injured his shoulder. We’ll never know. Coming up through the minors I heard a lot of stories about frustrated fathers pushing their sons to achieve something they never did. But Senior wasn’t that way at all. One of his strongest beliefs is that you should do in life what you enjoy doing.

The pressure he did exert on his children was this: Whatever we did we should do correctly and to the best of our abilities. He always said, “Be yourself and prove yourself.” He hates anything shoddy or lazy. My brother Billy says I broke Lou Gehrig’s record because I could. I might add, on behalf of my father, and because I could, I should.

Senior was inducted into the Orioles’ Hall of Fame during the 1996 season. At the banquet he was funny, direct and foursquare in his remarks. In conclusion, he said that he accepted the honor on behalf of all the equally dedicated men he had worked with in the minor leagues for all those years.

Then it was my turn. It was difficult. I wasn’t certain I could say what I wanted about my father and what he means to me. So I told a little story about my two children, Rachel, six at the time, and Ryan, then three. They’d been bickering for weeks, and I explained how one day I heard Rachel taunt Ryan, “You’re just trying to be like Daddy.”

After a few moments of indecision, I asked Rachel, “What’s wrong with trying to be like Dad?”

When I finished telling the story, I looked at my father and added, “That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”

Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Bryan

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