Funny thing about the Streak. You watch Cal Ripken Jr. grind his way toward baseball immortality with a string of consecutive games that is tiring just to contemplate, and you begin to think of the Baltimore Oriole shortstop as some kind of robot: Wind him up, and he just keeps going and going and going.
Something similar happened to the public perception of Lou Gehrig, whose record of 2,130 straight games Ripken will likely break on Sept. 6. Gehrig came to be thought of as the stolid and stoic ballplayer who endured all manner of suffering with hardly a grimace. Even Gehrig's nickname, the Iron Horse, made him seem mechanical. In Ripken's case the image of an ironman has been helped along by his lack of flamboyance and his aversion to controversy.
Of course, image isn't everything, no matter what Andre Agassi used to say. There is an undeniable joy in the way Ripken plays the game and in the way he lives his life that can be seen only by looking beyond the public image. Spend a week in the life of the Oriole ironman, and you begin to see that the Streak is nothing but a by-product of that joy.
The Oriole-Ranger game in Baltimore on July 25 ended at 11:02 p.m. Ripken entered the clubhouse an hour and 20 minutes later, sweating profusely, and his baseball cap was missing. Outfielder Brady Anderson was the only other player left in the clubhouse.
"Where have you been?" asked Anderson.
"Working out," said Ripken.
"You were signing, weren't you?"
"You're sick," said Anderson.
For all that time Ripken had been standing next to the Oriole dugout in full uniform, in sweltering heat, signing autographs, at least 500 of them. He shook more hands than a presidential candidate on the stump and smiled for more pictures than Cindy Crawford. He even gave his hat to an eager young fan. "Gimme five," Ripken said, slapping hands with a child no taller than his bat. He signed hats, balls, ticket stubs—even a powder-blue pillow. "Please make it To Grandma," the woman said. Another woman asked, "Do you sign sweaters?" Ripken smiled and declined. Yet another woman asked, "Do you give kisses?" Ripken chuckled and said, "No, I'm too sweaty." That didn't seem to faze her, because her next question was, "Can I have your pants?"
Oriole coach Elrod Hendricks, who has worn a major league uniform for the past 29 years, says he has never seen a player sign as often as Ripken has this season. "One night it was 102 degrees, we lost, played terrible, and he signed for every last fan," Hendricks says.
Anderson shakes his head and says, "Some nights I'll leave the park and hear a guy say, 'I got Cal's autograph eight times.' And his friend will say, 'I got it 10 times.' Cal is the most conscientious player in baseball."
Ripken has always been an easy touch for autograph seekers, but he is signing more this year, he says, because of the Streak and because he wants to try to undo some of the damage done by the baseball strike. On Thursday, July 27, at 9:15 a.m., he went to the offices of The Tufton Group, the marketing firm that handles his public relations and his charity foundation, and he spent part of his time in a place called the signing room. Ripken usually goes there once per home stand and signs whatever has been left for him to sign. When he's done he always signs an extra box of baseballs, just to stay ahead of the game and "to soften the daily barrage," as he puts it. Says Bill Stetka, the Orioles' assistant director of publicity, "The Streak is going to end someday, and when it does, it'll be because of a wrist injury from signing so much."
There is less signing to do on the road, but not much. On his last day in each town Ripken spends up to an hour autographing paraphernalia left by opposing players and team officials. After a game two weeks ago in Kansas City he stood outside the visitors' dugout in full uniform and signed for 30 minutes. "I've never seen a player do that," said Oriole infielder Jeff Huson.
As Ripken headed for the bus outside Kauffman Stadium, there were hundreds of fans screaming for his autograph. It was a Sunday—"getaway day," in players' parlance—and there was no time to sign. Still, Ripken tried to give his cap to a five-year-old. "Would you like this?" Ripken asked. The boy, no doubt overwhelmed, said no. Ripken tried again, but he was swept along by the rest of the players, and the kid was soon lost in the crowd.
But watch closely. There is something to be learned even in the way that Ripken approaches the chore of signing autographs. If he is using a pen that might smear, he blows on his carefully inked signature so that it doesn't smudge. "With Cal," says Oriole pitching coach Mike Flanagan, "everything must be done correctly."
Ripken got back home from Kansas City at 3:30 on the morning of July 24, and three hours later his son, Ryan, was pouncing on him, not knowing, or caring, that his father had had so little sleep.
Ryan's second birthday was coming up in two days, but since Monday was an off day for Ripken, the family decided to celebrate with a pool party at the house. "I was the pool toy," Ripken said after the party ended. "I was in the water the whole time. I had kids all over my back. I guess I should have done the adult thing and talked to the grown-ups, but I really wanted to be with my kids."
Ripken lives for his children, Rachel, 5, and Ryan. "They are the greatest thing that has ever happened to me," he said. "I think kids are the secret to life. Those who aren't parents, to me, are missing out on that secret."
The Oriole trainers, Richie Bancells and Jamie Reed, brought their kids to the party, and not necessarily so they could play with Ripken's kids. "My three kids know that when they go to Rip's house, they're going there for one reason—to play with Rip," said Bancells. "Kids love him. But no matter how much fun they had, he had more. The adults were all sitting on the side eating crabs and drinking beer, and there's Rip in the middle of the pool with eight kids hanging on him."
"We call him the Pied Piper," said Cal's wife, Kelly, who is six feet tall and very athletic. "Kids love him because he's a kid. Living with him is like living with a third child."
When Cal plays with Ryan, they sometimes do look like a pair of kids. "I'll dunk," said Cal, "then he'll run up to his little basket and dunk." For his birthday Ryan got a miniature locker with his name on it, just like his dad's. He does everything like his dad.
Cal, too, had footsteps in which to follow. His father, Cal Sr., worked in baseball for 36 years, as a player, manager and coach, and because of that, Cal Jr. knows what his own prolonged absences mean to his kids. That's why every morning, no matter how late he gets home from the previous night's game, Cal gets up and eats breakfast with his children. Then he takes Rachel to school. "That's Rachel's time, in the car with me," he said. "It comes from growing up in a family where the game took my father away on a regular basis. The most important time between my dad and me wasn't at the park, it was en route to the park. I didn't go with him so I could play baseball but just to be with him. That 20 minutes in the car was why I went. I hope she looks back at our time in the same way."
Lots of people, especially professional athletes, take a room in their house and convert it into a home gymnasium. Ripken has a gym that is big enough to convert into a home. He calls it "the family playhouse" because the kids' toys are in there but, truth be told, many of the toys belong to him. It is where he plays basketball in the off-season, where his batting cage is located, where he lifts weights, where his oscillating tennis-ball machine shoots him grounders, where he plays floor hockey.
Kelly, who was a pretty fair basketball player in her day, will go one-on-one with Cal from time to time. In 1973, as a 14-year-old, she finished second in the state of Maryland in a basketball skills contest. (The finals were held during halftime of a Baltimore Bullets game.) Kelly smiles and says, "That was a big thing to him because he tried to win that competition and didn't make it to the finals." She picks up a ball and playfully starts dribbling, backing him in toward the basket.
"She fakes the same way every time—watch, there it is," says Cal. Typical Rip. He even has a scouting report on his wife.
In fact, he has scouting reports on all the players who play in his gym. From November through January, five days a week for the past five years, there has been a pickup game at his gym. Before that, Ripken and his buddies used to play in the gym at a local private school, but there usually wasn't anyone good enough to guard him, and his team won almost every game. Always needing to be challenged, he began importing players from all across Maryland for a regular game at his home, and he's been doing it ever since. There is one group of guys who play college ball. They're young, so they give Ripken his best workout. Another group is made up of former college and pro players; they have experience, so they can teach Ripken the finer points of the game. Then there are games mostly with Ripken's Oriole teammates. "He never mixes the groups," says Flanagan. "Each one gives him something different to help his game."
For games this good the best ball is needed. Always the perfectionist, Ripken isn't satisfied just to have a Spalding NBA ball. He has to have Spalding game balls, ones that have been sent to him by NBA teams. "Some balls could be defective," he says. "I want authentic basketballs." He picks up a Charlotte Hornet game ball, steps behind the three-point line and drains a jumper. "It's good!" he yells, and jumps in the air.
Across the floor sits the trampoline that has been set up this summer for Rachel, especially, to use. According to her mother, Rachel is "a model-dancer-actress," and she's particularly adept on the trampoline.
And how about you, Rip?
"I'm O.K.," he says.
He pulls off his shoes, hops on the trampoline and starts bouncing. Two thousand ninety straight games, 41 away from the record, and there he is, jumping around like a seventh-grader in phys-ed class. He demonstrates how to land on the stomach and bounce back to a standing position. He does the same thing landing on his back. He does four swivel-hip turns. He does several flips from his knees. "I can do regular flips, but I'm not doing them now," he says. "You can get hurt on this thing, you know. I landed on my shoulder once in the off-season and said, 'Whoa!'"
Ripken is nothing if not consistent, even in his approach to something as simple as a home trampoline. Family lore has it that Cal wouldn't get on the trampoline until he had watched his wife perform on it a few times. Then he started practicing by himself. The first time he tried it in front of anyone, he pretended he had never been on it. "Right," said Kelly with a smile. "He'd probably had 25 hours of practice."
Ripken's need to be prepared borders on the obsessive. He uses an indoor batting cage at Camden Yards to hit, run and throw in total solitude before batting practice begins on the field. When he walks on the field for pregame stretching, "I'm ready to play," he says.
On the night of July 25, in a 4–3 win over Texas, Ripken fouled three balls off his foot. Giant third baseman Matt Williams, a pretty tough guy, broke a bone when he fouled a ball off his foot in June. Ripken, of course, says he felt no pain.
"He never even limped," says Flanagan. "He gets optical contusions. You know: He looks like he's gotten hurt, but he hasn't. I don't think there's any blood in him."
Has Flanagan ever met anyone in baseball with the same tolerance for pain? "Yes," he says quickly. "His father."
Cal Ripken Sr. is 59 years old and has all the body fat of a lean 21-year-old. Rip Sr. is like an old catcher's mitt: leathery, tough, resilient. Cal Jr.'s work ethic, his durability and his discipline come from his father. "[Cal Sr.] got hit in the face with a line drive one night in batting practice in Boston ... I mean right in the face," says Flanagan. "The next day there was no bruise. There wasn't any swelling." Rip Sr. went to the hospital for X-rays and was back in the third base coaching box before the game was over. This came as no surprise to the Orioles. After all, he used to pitch batting practice with a torn rotator cuff.
"When he played soccer," says Cal Jr., "he'd get kicked in the foot, and blood would form under his big toenail. He'd come home, get a drill and drill a hole in the nail. Blood would spurt out, it would relieve the pressure, and he'd say, 'Aaah.'"
But even Cal Sr. can't match his son's ability to play through injuries. How does Ripken do it? "For one thing," jokes Anderson, "he doesn't have any ligaments in his ankles. They're gone. That helps." He thinks Ripken's surprising natural strength helps account for his ironman feats. "It would be scary how strong he could be if he really lifted weights," Anderson says.
When it's time to go to the ballpark, the ride is conducted in silence. Ripken used to listen to the radio, but no more. It makes too much noise. For a while he listened to audiotapes of books because he doesn't have the time to read as much as he would like to. "He didn't want to waste those 30 minutes driving in," says Flanagan. "He's always doing something to make himself better."
Reading demands concentration, and since Ripken wants to devote most of his energy on game days to the team, he reads only after games and on planes. (He just finished Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and now is working on Rand's The Fountainhead.) "My thing now is having total silence in the car on the way to the game," he says. "To concentrate."
He likes quiet. On the road his idea of fun is diving into a movie in his room. He makes sure his room has a VCR. Mysteries, dramas, courtroom movies are his favorites. "Every movie that I like, I watch two or three times," he says. He has seen The Silence of the Lambs 20 times. He and Anderson play a game. One gives a line from a movie, and the other not only has to identify the movie but also has to give the next line.
After games Ripken is usually the last to leave the clubhouse because he's relaxing, working out or signing. The demands of his fame can be tiring, and the clubhouse serves as a sanctuary.
On Wednesday night, July 26, he left the ballpark at 1:15 a.m., only a little later than usual, and stopped to say good night to two women, named Jean and Janet, who also have quite a streak going: Jean hasn't missed an Oriole home game in 18 years, Janet in 14. As usual, they are outside the parking lot at Camden Yards waiting to say good night to Ripken. He stops and gives each of them a can of iced tea, then drives off into the night.
The week ends for Ripken with a typical Saturday at home: A morning spent in the gym, highlighted by Cal, Kelly, Rachel and Ryan bouncing on the trampoline as Dad sings ring-around-the-rosy. Then into the pool for two hours with the kids. Then it's on to the ballpark for consecutive game number 2,093.
And the ironman keeps going and going and going.