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The Iron Man
TEXT BY TIM KURKJIAN
July 25, 2007
The Iron Man was the ideal nickname for Cal Ripken Jr. For more than 16 years he battled pain, sickness and just plain fatigue and did not miss a day of work. But as this private look at Ripken in 1995 revealed, baseball's toughest player also had a softer side
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July 25, 2007

The Iron Man

The Iron Man was the ideal nickname for Cal Ripken Jr. For more than 16 years he battled pain, sickness and just plain fatigue and did not miss a day of work. But as this private look at Ripken in 1995 revealed, baseball's toughest player also had a softer side

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For all that time Ripken had been standing next to the Orioles' dugout in full uniform, in sweltering heat, signing autographs, at least 500. 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?"

Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks, who has worn a major league uniform for 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 strike that short-circuited the '94 season. On Thursday, July 27, at 9:15 a.m., he went to the office of The Tufton Group, the firm that handles his public relations and his charity foundation, and 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. 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 Orioles 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 learn even in the way that Ripken approaches signing autographs. If he is using a pen that might smear, he blows on his signature so that it doesn't smudge. "With Cal," says Orioles pitching coach Mike Flanagan, "everything must be done correctly."

THE KIDS

Ripken got back home from Kansas City, Mo., at 3:30 a.m. on 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."

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