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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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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 Orioles' 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."

THE GYM

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. 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 since 1990, 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 Orioles 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."

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