The tunnel that leads from the visitors' dugout to the clubhouse at the Metrodome in Minneapolis is long and steep—11 steps, a landing, 11 steps, a landing, 11 more steps. Every time the Baltimore Orioles play there, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. finishes his pregame infield practice, races off the field and sprints up the stairs. The object of the game he invented is to get to the top in the fewest strides. "He can do it in six," Oriole manager John Oates says. "It's ridiculous. It's amazing."
Before one game last year, Rene Gonzales, then an Oriole infielder, became the only other player known to have made it to the top in six. That day Ripken took seven, falling on his back at the finish. "After that crushing defeat," Ripken says, "I did it again, just to prove to myself I could make it."
He had to do it. Ripken's life is about wanting to play, to win, to be the best. Some athletes share his simple philosophy, but no one in major league baseball lives it as vigorously or as passionately as Ripken. That in part explains why he has been the best player in baseball this year, why he's a future Hall of Famer, why he may eventually be recognized as the greatest shortstop in American League history and why, as of Sunday, he had played in 1,502 straight games, 1,066 more than any other active player.
"He doesn't ever want to lose, even in these tiny games," says Oriole outfielder Brady Anderson. "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. 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, of course. I said to him once, 'How did you make it easier than I did?' He said, 'I always assumed I could jump farther than you.' "
Anderson laughs. "In spring training we have the 12-minute run," he says. "You don't have to try. He tries. He comes to me before the race and plans it out, how we're going to run it." Anderson won it last spring. "He got mad at me," said Anderson. "He said I went out too fast, I ruined him, I broke him down."
Oates laughs. "Last week, Cal had gone two games without a hit, so he wanted to take extra hitting," he says. "He hasn't missed an infield or batting practice in 10 years. Early hitting takes an hour. So I tell him to come out for just the last 15 minutes and hit. He said, 'No, I want to shag.' After a while I look around, and he and [infielder] Tim Hulett are climbing the outfield fence, trying to see who can swat away [designated hitter] Sam Horn's home runs in batting practice."
Oriole pitcher Mike Flanagan understands Ripken's need to excel in whatever he tries. "I was that way until I started playing pro ball," he says. "But pro ball is so demanding, I lost some of my desire in other sports. It didn't matter anymore if I won in Ping-Pong. But it matters to him. Basketball is the perfect example."
Until the gymnasium he built at his house was completed in December—it has a basketball court, scoreboard, weights, batting cage, etc.—Ripken, teammates and friends played basketball three nights a week for four winters at Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School. At Bryn Mawr, you could learn more about Ripken than you could by watching him play shortstop at Memorial Stadium.
No fans were watching, there was no image to uphold and no iron man streak on the line, but every game at Bryn Mawr was like the seventh game of the World Series to Ripken. He was a madman on the offensive and defensive boards. He dived for loose balls. If the big man he was guarding was slow getting down the floor, Ripken harassed the little guard bringing the ball up. In basketball as in baseball, Ripken isn't a marvelously skilled or graceful player, but he was the best at Bryn Mawr. Ripken was so dominating that new players—all big—were recruited to guard him and make the games fairer. He pounded them, too.
"It's the last game of the night, and he gets mad when everyone is tired and he's still going," says Flanagan, a regular at Bryn Mawr and last winter at Ripken's gym. Oriole second baseman Bill Ripken, who gets his older brother the ball in baseball and basketball, marvels at the energy level of a man so big—6'4", 225 pounds. "He's nonstop. Everyone else is gassed, and he's dunking," Bill says. "I like how he gets ticked off, with nothing on the line, in a pickup game."