Cal Ripken Jr., the young superstar who plays shortstop for the world champion Baltimore Orioles, approaches life with the supreme self-assurance of one who knew from the cradle what he wanted to be and then not only became exactly that but also, while barely past his majority, among the very best at it. Ripken virtually teethed on a baseball. His father, Cal Sr., was a minor league player in the Orioles' system when Junior (as he is sometimes called) was born, a minor league manager when he was growing up and is now the third-base coach on the team for which he stars. A background like this might seem enviable to the frustrated jocks among us, but psychology cautions that young Ripken could just as easily have rejected his baseball upbringing and gone in another direction entirely. It's the old minister's-son-turned-ganglord story. But no such rebellion occurred here. "From the time Cal was a little tyke," says his mother, Vi, "all he ever wanted to be was a ballplayer." "His mother and I never forced anything on him," says Cal Sr. "He just liked to play." So he became a ballplayer.
Well no, he didn't just become a ballplayer. He became the consummate ballplayer, a Rookie of the Year in his first season, a Most Valuable Player on a championship team in his second, a young man of 23 so obsessed with catching, throwing and hitting baseballs that he barely acknowledges the more frivolous pursuits common to males of his age. Ripken grows vague when he's asked what else interests him in the vast panorama of late-20th-century living. "Baseball's a full time job," he'll say. "I really haven't had time to explore other things." Tall, handsome and personable, he's catnip to the ladies, and he likes them fine, too, but he has no steady girlfriend and, says his road roommate. Rick Dempsey, "He's no womanizer." "It takes a special kind of person to become a baseball wife," says Ripken, who knows all about that because his mother is one.
Dempsey, whom Ripken visited in Agoura, Calif. this past winter, has tried to get his roomie interested in boating and surfing, and he may yet succeed, although it has been far from smooth sailing because on most boats there's scarcely room to play catch. On the other hand, you could play pepper in his suburban Baltimore condo because his living room is barren of furniture. Ripken was a good student at Aberdeen High School in Maryland, especially in math, but he exhibits only minimal interest in the imposing numbers of the four-year, $4 million contract he recently signed with the Orioles. He's the only third-year player in the history of the game to be so richly rewarded and, with star first baseman Eddie Murray, only the Orioles' second million-dollar-a-year baby. "Even when I signed that contract," says Ripken, "I didn't fully realize what it was. I can tell you what a $20 bill is like because I can hold it in my hand. But the rest is all numbers. I'm satisfied, though. I ought to be."
Ripken looks about as uncomfortable out of his uniform as Douglas MacArthur did out of his. He misses the game so much in the winter that he cannot walk by his glove, hanging in the closet, without putting it on and slamming a ball into it. He has a special empathy for fans because he's still one himself, a rooter who gets nearly as much fun out of watching a game—very intensely—as he does playing. In essence, he's living out a Damn Yankees kind of fantasy; he's a latter-day Joe Hardy with his soul intact. He's not about to snub autograph seekers because it wasn't that long ago that he was one. The part of baseball that most players find annoying—the incessant travel and long absences from family—are no problem for him because he's lived that way all his life. In short, if Dr. Frankenstein were to assemble the working parts for the Übermensch ballplayer, he would create a Cal Ripken Jr. If the modern day equivalent of the mad doctor, the computer, were to be fed the necessary components for an MVP, it would cough up a Ripken.
This isn't to say he became a star overnight. Ripken was a runty 5'7", 128-pounder as a high school freshman. He grew about an inch the next year, then started to shoot up as a junior. When he graduated, a star pitcher and shortstop as well as a letter-winner in soccer, he was a slatty 6'2", 180-pounder, who batted with little power. He hit not a single home run in his first year as a minor-leaguer and only eight the next. But he hit 25 homers for Class AA Charlotte in 1980 and 23 the next year for Class AAA Rochester.
In his Rookie of the Year season with the Orioles, he had 28 homers and drove in 93 runs despite a horrendous 7-for-60 (.117) slump over his first 18 games and the pressures of a shift from third base to shortstop in midseason. Last year, playing every inning, every day, he, in Dempsey's words, "took this game by storm," batting .318 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs and leading the league in hits (211), runs (121) and doubles (47). He was 6'4" and 210 pounds last season. He's grown a half-inch and added five pounds for this season. "I can't believe it," he says. "I'm still growing."
A big man with power, he certainly doesn't look or hit like a shortstop. Robin Yount had a big power season for Milwaukee in '82 (29 homers, 114 RBIs), but slipped in '83 (17, 80) because of injuries. Before him, only Vera Stephens of the Red Sox in the late '40s and Ernie Banks in the late '50s were premier home run hitters at a position traditionally manned by Munchkins with names like Pee Wee Rabbit and Scooter.
Ripken may well be the biggest shortstop ever to play the game. He's nearly three inches taller and a good 40 pounds heavier than Marty Marion and Buddy Kerr, two shortstops of the '40s who were considered Brobdingnagian in their time. Joe Cronin in the '30s was considered a big shortstop, but he wasn't quite 6 feet tall. Harvey Kuenn was a 6'2" shortstop when he started his career with the Tigers. Tony Kubek was 6'3", but he wasn't strictly a shortstop for the Yankees of the '50s and '60s. Banks was 6'1" and so was Ripken's illustrious predecessor on the Orioles, Mark Belanger, but Belanger, for all of his defensive artistry, couldn't hit the ball out of your dining room. Dave Concepcion of the Reds is 6'1" and Yount and Alan Trammell of the Tigers are an even 6 feet. The greatest of all shortstops, Honus Wagner, was a big man—5'11" and 200 pounds—but Ripken would have towered over him.
Traditionalists at first considered Ripken's size a defensive drawback, but he has made believers of almost everyone by now, including a few skeptics in his own organization. "He played shortstop in high school, but we didn't think that would be his position as a pro," says Orioles general manager Hank Peters. "Our staff thought third base would be his best position in the long run." And that's where he played the first half of his rookie year until Earl Weaver, sensing his potential, switched him to short on July 1. Since then he has played every inning of 253 straight games at the position. Last year he led major league shortstops in assists (534) and the American League with 831 total chances, only three fewer than the number accepted by the major league leader, the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith, a jackrabbit whose modest physique conforms more to the shortstop mold. "If Cal hadn't hit so well," says Baltimore manager Joe Altobelli, "people would be raving about him as a shortstop. If he plays 10 years at short, he'll put numbers on the board that'll be earth shattering." "Everybody said he didn't have the range," says Milwaukee manager Rene Lachemann. "All I know is, he makes all the plays." "To tell you the truth," says Yount, "I haven't seen any weaknesses in his game. Looking at his size, you might not think he has the range, but that could be deceiving because he positions himself so well. I don't see too many balls that get through him. He's got great hands. And it seems like he's always in the right place." "Ripken surprised me when I first saw him," says Trammell, the brilliant Detroit shortstop who himself hit .319 with 14 homers in '83. "I thought he was too big to play shortstop, but he's played a helluva game there."
"It seems to me like he's played shortstop all his life," says Orioles reliever Tippy Martinez. "He's like Belanger in that he knows where to play the hitters and he knows whether the pitcher has his good stuff or not. He has such a feel for the game."