Ultracompetitive Ripken changed the game

Updated: December 28, 2006, 11:39 AM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

A group of major league All-Stars played a celebrity softball game many years ago. After the game, the baseball players found a gymnasium and soon were locked in a highly competitive basketball game, which Cal Ripken dominated, especially around the hoop.

After the third game, outfielder Dave Parker, who was 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, looked at Ripken and said, "Damn, I've never been pushed around by a shortstop before."

Hall credentials:
• 3,184 hits
• 2,632 straight games
• 2 AL MVPs
• 19-time AL All-Star
• 2 AL Gold Gloves

Ripken was no ordinary shortstop, which is why, on Jan. 9, he'll be voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. His credentials are stunning: Rookie of the Year in 1982, Most Valuable Player in 1983 (also a world champion that year) and 1991, two Gold Gloves (he made three errors in 161 games in 1990, but didn't win a Gold Glove), 3,184 hits, 431 home runs and a record 2,632 consecutive games played.

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he was most responsible for changing the shortstop position, transforming it from a spot for little guys who didn't hit to an offensive position for big, power guys. Ask Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Chipper Jones and Troy Glaus -- all drafted as big, offensive shortstops -- about the player they most admired growing up, and they'll say "Cal Ripken."

Ripken's greatness came from many places. He had a pain tolerance like no one who ever played the game. He loved to compete as much as anyone who ever played the game. He was remarkably strong, especially in his hands. He was analytical about everything, dissecting the data until he found the best way to attack the issue. He lived in fear of being unprepared and embarrassed, so he made sure he never took on anything without all the information. He had to win at whatever game he played, be it baseball, basketball or some game he invented, which he often did.

"I would tape his ankles, and he'd ask 'Why are you doing it that way? Why don't you do it this way?'" Orioles trainer Richie Bancells said. "Finally, I told him, 'Look, I don't know. This is how I was taught in trainer's school!' So he taught himself. Now he can tape his own ankles better than I can."

There were players more talented than Ripken; former Angels manager Gene Mauch once said Ripken had "the worst swing of any great player I've ever seen." But he constantly analyzed his swing, he continually changed it, all in the name of improving, and of winning.

"He doesn't ever want to lose, even in these tiny games," ex-teammate Brady Anderson once said. "He makes up games, like sockball [baseball played with a taped-up sock] in the hallway during rain delays. He's sweating his butt off, then goes out and gets two hits. We play indoor hockey. He's the best. At Anaheim Stadium, there's a stretch of grass, dirt, grass. After we do our stretching, he and I always have to long-jump over the dirt. It's at least 15 feet. He makes it. I said to him once, 'How did you make that jump easier than I did?' He said, 'I always assumed I could jump farther than you.'"

Ripken once said it was a goal of his to win the "Superstars" competition, which included athletes and skills from all major sports. Ripken never got a chance to compete because the "Superstars" show went off the air for several years, but he actually trained in the offseason to win it.

"In spring training [with the Orioles], we had the 12-minute run," Anderson said. "You don't have to try. But he tries. He comes to me before the race and plans out how we're going to run it. I won it, and he got mad at me. He said I went out too fast. I ruined him. I broke him down."

Ripken and Anderson were part of a team of major league All-Stars who played a series of games in Japan one winter. They were exposed to a Japanese game that was played inside a cage and involved a ball and some sort of basket, kind of a cross between basketball, polo and rollerball. The Japanese had a team. Ripken formed his own team that included Anderson, Mike Piazza and only one player familiar with the game, Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo.

Cal Ripken Jr.
AP Photo/Roberto BoreaCal Ripken Jr. hit 20 or more home runs in 10 straight seasons.
"Cal devised a strategy to win the game; he planned the whole thing," Anderson said. "Then we went out and beat the Japanese at their own game."

Ex-Orioles manager Johnny Oates remembered a day in Kansas City in 1991, but it could have been any day in any town in any year.

"Cal had gone two games without getting a hit, so he wanted to take extra hitting," Oates said. "He hasn't missed an infield or batting practice in 10 years. So I tell him to come out for just the last 15 minutes and hit. He said, 'No, I want to shag, too.' After a while, I look around, and he and Tim Hulett are climbing the outfield fence, seeing who can swat away Sam Horn's home runs in batting practice."

Former Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan was there that day. He has seen Ripken do some amazing things, on and off the field, all in the name of competition and for the need to excel in whatever he tried.

"I was that way until I started playing professional ball," Flanagan said. "But pro ball is so demanding; I lost some of my desire in other sports. It didn't matter any more if I won in ping-pong. But it matters to him. Basketball is a perfect example."

Ripken loves basketball. On the eve of the 1995 season, the year in which he broke Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played, the Orioles were in Kansas City, where former teammate Rick Sutcliffe lived. They went to Sutcliffe's house for a cookout. There was a basketball hoop in the driveway.

"Did you shoot around?" Ripken was asked the next day. "We played two-on-two," he said. Did you dunk? "A couple of times," he said. Were you wearing basketball shoes? "I was wearing loafers," he said.

On the night before the start of the season in which he would break one of the most prestigious records in baseball history, Ripken played two-on-two wearing loafers, because there was a hoop and there were players. Did his team win? "We crushed," he said.

His competitive nature never slowed. In the offseason in Ripken's home gym, he would design games and drills that made his training more fun but also served to make him a better, more complete baseball player. He set up an oscillating tennis ball machine that shot out ground balls, rapid fire, to his right, his left, up and back. It was his way to improve his range.

Ripken had total recall on games and situations. He always knew the count, the hitter, the pitcher and the pitch. He knew, with a breaking ball coming, against a certain hitter, he had to be positioned more toward the hole. One year, he even called pitches for some of the Orioles' pitchers while he was playing shortstop. He didn't keep a little black book; it was all in his head. He had a mental scouting report on every pitcher he faced and on every hitter.

In 1995, in Ripken's gym, he played a playful one-on-one basketball game with his wife, Kelly. "Watch," he said, "she always fakes to her right, then turns to her left and shoots." And that's precisely what Kelly Ripken did. Ripken even had a scouting report on his wife.

Kelly Ripken bought a trampoline for the gym. "Let's see what you can do," she said to her husband. Ripken abruptly declined, having never been on a trampoline, and, as usual, would never attempt anything without proper preparation for fear of being embarrassed. "Show me a few things first," Ripken said to his wife. She did. Two weeks later, Kelly entered the gym and her husband was doing amazing jumps and backflips on the trampoline.

"You've been practicing in the middle of the night!" she said.

"No, I haven't," he said.

Another time, Kelly Ripken signed up the family dog for training classes. One night, Cal Jr. went with her to the class. She got sick during the lesson, leaving Ripken to be in charge of the incorrigible dog, which he was incapable of doing. He was unprepared, and he was humiliated. Two weeks later, Ripken told his wife that he would take the dog to the training class. This time, Ripken was in charge, and, miraculously, the dog was trained.

"You've been training him in the middle of the night!" she said.

"No, I haven't," he said.

Ripken also was the most durable baseball player of all time. His toughness came from his father, Cal Sr., a minor league catcher who often caught in the bullpen without a mask and once was hit in the face by a pitch and knocked unconscious.

"When I was a kid, he would come home from playing soccer," Cal Jr. said. "He played midfield when he was in his 50s. He would have these huge blood blisters under his big toe. He'd take out a power drill, drill into the toe, the blood would come spurting out, and he'd go 'Ooooooooh.'"

One night in Boston, Ripken Sr. was hit in the face with a line drive while throwing batting practice. Orioles trainer Richie Bancells raced to the mound, thinking Ripken was dead.

"Ten minutes before the start of a game, a couple of our guys jumped Rip and dug their knuckles in his ribs. We had him pinned down. He was yelling 'No! No!' but he wouldn't give up. He would rather die than give up. "
-- Ex-Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald

"When I got there," Bancells said, "Rip had gotten up and was screaming at me, 'What in the hell are you doing out here? I haven't finished my round!' Blood was spurting from his face. But he finished his round of BP, went to the hospital, got stitched up and was back on the field in the third inning."

Like his father, Ripken Jr. was indefatigable. His energy level was unbelievably high. One year, on an off day, the Orioles had a family pool party.

"My kids would go just to play with Junior; he was the pool toy," Bancells said. "All the adults were on the side, relaxing, but Junior was in the pool throwing kids all over the place."

He was the same way at the ballpark. "Guys are dragging, and he's in the back of the bus whooping it up," Flanagan said. "I've never seen him asleep in the corner." Former Orioles first baseman Randy Milligan said, "I've never heard him say, 'I'm not feeling good today.' I say that every day."

On Opening Day 1985, Ripken rolled his ankle on the second-base bag while making a double play. He played the rest of the game, but after the game, his ankle was severely swollen. The next day was a day off -- if there had been a game, he says he would not have been able to play. His ankle was ringed black and blue, the kind that keeps normal people out for a month. He went to the hospital after the game. The doctor gave him crutches and told him to stay off the ankle for two weeks. Ripken threw the crutches away when he left the hospital, treated the ankle and, less than 24 hours later, played in a big league game.

How did he do that?

"I taped it really tight," he said.

The Orioles used to play a game to determine which player could take the most pain and which one was the hardest to bruise, a game invented by Ripken, who, of course, was also the champion.

"Ten minutes before the start of a game," former Oriole pitcher Ben McDonald once said, "a couple of our guys jumped Rip and dug their knuckles in his ribs. We had him pinned down. He was yelling 'No! No!' but he wouldn't give up. He would rather die than give up. The next day, I had a huge bruise on my ribs, and he had a tiny red spot."

McDonald smiled and said, "I can't wait until The Streak is over. A bunch of us are going to pummel him. But we still won't be able to hurt him. He will not bruise."

The Streak is over. Cal Ripken's career is over. Soon, he will be voted into the Hall of Fame on the first try. Cooperstown will have a new, big shortstop -- in a way, the biggest shortstop of all.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.