Cal Ripken Jr. on playing for his father, staying clean in the steroid era and jumping stairs in Minnesota
Jul 13, 2011, 4:37 PM EDT
Occasionally our own Josiah Schlatter bothers athletes and then writes about it. This is one of those times.
Off the Bench: Hey Cal, thanks for the time. You’re Mr. Longevity. What made you capable of playing every day while the rest of the league was taking days off for dings and bruises where they miss one game a month, at least?
Ripken: Haha, well I can’t say that everybody suffers from dings and bruises. An every day player from the big leagues can usually play 150, 162 games, I’d imagine. I was able to play through nagging injuries and some amount of pain probably a little better than most. Whenever I was banged up or nicked up I tired to stay more within myself, and I found that I usually played better. Many times I had my better games when I had minor injuries.
Because you understood how to play in control.
Yeah, the reality is that in professional baseball, just by schedule alone, the only day that you’re 100 percent I think is the first day of spring training or the first day of the regular season. From then on you have to figure out how to play with less than 100 percent and I was able to do that, stay under control, and still get the results even though you might be banged up a bit.
Was there a worst day, a day when you woke up and said “Oh my God, this might be it. This might be the end of it all.”
Hahaha, I dunno if I ever had a day that said “this might be the end of it all”, I had a lot of days where it would have been easy to take the easy way out and say “I don’t want to face the challenge today”, and I can remember a couple times when we played a fifteen inning game the night before and you have a day game the next day with Roger Clemens pitching at Fenway, that would’ve been an easy one to do that. Sometimes you can surprise yourself by forcing yourself to go through with it.
Playing with your dad, and your brother for that matter, is one of the most amazing phenomenons in sports. Not many get to do that. How special did you feel back then when you got to wake up every day and say “I’m in the major leagues, my dad’s the coach and my brother’s the second baseman”?
We downplayed it when it happened because we were a professional family. Dad was in professional baseball for awhile, and when they asked how special it was to have two sons, or even one son when I came up, he would say, “Well I look at all the guys on the team as my sons.” And sometimes I wanted to scream and say, “Hey, that’s not true! I’m your son!” Or Billy and I are your sons, and I tell you what, it was very very special because we all need people around us that you love. Certainly having your dad and your brother on the same team, that represented that.
Another small tidbit: You never really know what you might miss until it’s gone. So when it was gone, that’s when you realize it was a truly special time.
Looking back, are you happy with the switch to third? As you got older, it must’ve been harder to play short at age 37, 38.
I still had some good years as I got older. I think ’96 was a good feeling year, a good offensive year, and I was 36. So you’re right, with the grinds of playing shortstop third base made more sense. And I wasn’t known for my overall quickness or overall leg speed, it was more about understanding the position and figuring out where the hitter’s going to hit the ball so you could cut down on the ground you needed to cover. When I moved over there, well, the hot corner isn’t a peach either (chuckles). Balls come down there really hard with insane angles but you still have to have big league skill to play over there. It was a choice by the team to improve the left side of the infield.
Jeter’s playing shortstop, and as everybody knows, everybody gets old. Do you think he’ll be okay with moving to second base, maybe even a little first?
Haha, well I think it’s a little silly to make general statements about his ability to play. You still look at him against all of the other shortstops and he’s still ranked in the highest percentage of shortstops. Heck, he was elected to the All-Star Game this year. And even in a down year by Derek he still drove in 80 runs and scored 111. But if you ever get yourself into the situation where you have other options, and someone’s coming up that’s a better player that’s looking to push you out? Then that’s the time to talk about it.
There was a big steroid era, as you might have heard. Let’s imagine you’re a random baseball player and the guy behind you is obviously doing steroids. The guy in front of you is obviously doing steroids. Do you think that random baseball player would think, you know what, I’m over here doing it real and everybody else has an unfair competitive advantage over me. Would he bite the bullet and continue playing clean or shoot up?
Haha, oh man, hypotheticals. My view is that the ones who were doing it, they were in the ‘know’ and that kind of culture. Those that aren’t are doing it their way. You might have small suspicions from now and then when you look around, but again it comes down to choice. Whether you think it’s right or wrong. Fortunately, I had a healthy fear of doing anything. You want to do it with what you have. The thing I worry about with the whole steroid era is how kids interpret it. With adults, you have a question and I can give you an answer back because of perspective. Kids kind of go on what they see and hear, their perspective can be formed. I hope they look it as a right or wrong issue.
I read a Sports Illustrated article many years ago about how you loved taking risks before games, with that famous article about you jumping the stairs. Any other crazy things in your past?
(From ESPN’s Jim Caple: Beyond a doubt the greatest feat I’ve seen is Cal Ripken climbing the Metrodome stairs leading from the field to the clubhouse in six strides. Let me tell you, it’s a LONG, high staircase, with four landings and like 28 steps. Ripken turned going up it into a contest to see how many strides he could do it in and he eventually got it down to six.)
Heh, well I don’t think I took risks just to take risks but I certainly enjoyed playing the game of baseball, practicing baseball, and when you do the same thing every day you have to look for ways to have fun with it and I was pretty athletic and explosive in many ways so I could jump the steps at Minnesota. Really, I ran off the field and it was a long way up and I didn’t want to go through the grueling process of walking up that flight of stairs so I jumped up and made a game out of it and before you know it you’re up the stairs. I was able to do stuff on those stairs that people try to emulate and copy, which is flattering in its own right. I didn’t worry about hurting myself, I went out and did what I wanted to do and had fun doing.
Could any fellow Oriole defeat your famous stair jumping abilities?
I didn’t witness it in my time. Couldn’t witness anyone else who could do it. But I’m sure there was.
So as far as you know, Cal Ripken Jr., still undefeated.
Hahaha, well I didn’t witness it. Most of the times people didn’t care about it, didn’t try.
You never got to win a championship. You think if you were 36, 37 at the end of your contract, would you have thought about leaving the Orioles to try and win a championship, like all of these players who are doing it in the NBA, or were you an Oriole forever?
(Sighs) Heh. There’s no guarantee that when you jump ship you’re going to win a championship. I had a couple choices when they fired my dad and I was a free agent at the end of that year I could’ve made a choice to go somewhere else but there’s a lot more that goes into the decision. You want to win and you want to help your team win but there’s also the decision about where you want to play, where you could play and where your family is. It was my hometown and I was pretty much okay with staying with the Orioles during the rebuilding process to try and make them a winner.
You have all of these famous Cal Ripken baseball leagues and I think it’s amazing because a bunch of kids I know, these 10- to 15-year-olds have talked about how, “OH MY GOD I MET CAL RIPKEN JR. and I get to play in his baseball league” and they’re so pumped up by this. Why aren’t more players doing stuff like this when they retire? It’s obviously working out for you.
Haha, I don’t know. It’s quite an honor to have a whole league named after you. When the Babe Ruth League came to me to talk about it, they tried to rejuvenate their lower division which was called Bambino Baseball and they wanted to call it Cal Ripken baseball worldwide so to me it was quite the high compliment and I get to have an impact on kids so it was pretty much a no-brainer for me, I enjoy trying to do things to enhance their experience with baseball.
I kind of view you as an otherworldly figure because I was a young kid when you broke the record and I remember my dad rushing down the stairs announcing, “Cal Ripken Jr. broke the record, he did it, he did it!” And I thought to myself, my God, this must be the best baseball player the world’s ever seen!” I bet you view yourself as a pretty normal guy, so how do you deal with all these kids revering you as a God amongst men?
Well, I’m sure parents have brainwashed their kids in some ways and it’s flattering, to say the least. A lot of the times parents will push their kids towards a role model type, a guy who plays the game a certain way but maybe handles himself off the field well. I know I would push my kids towards someone like Jeter. There’s a little brainwashing that’s taking place, and over time they might start acting like those players. Kids get energized for all sorts of reasons and if they’re excited about meeting me, thanks!
For you, whenever you were on the field you were a happy, smiling guy. Stood with your back straight, played the game like the consummate professional. Did you realize, “Ooh, I’m a role model. I have to act like this.”
No, I never consciously thought of myself as a role model but I realized my actions are looked at, picked upon, analyzed and copied. So if you have the chance to influence a kid, wouldn’t you want it to be positive? That was my feeling. So I tried to watch myself as best I could. We all make mistakes, we all do things we regret. But for the most part you wanted to be a good example for kids.
The Home Run Derby was last night. You’re famous for winning a Home Run Derby when nobody expected you to. How the hell did THAT happen?!
Hahahahaha, well all big league players can hit a ball out of a ballpark if you didn’t know. I wasn’t a slouch by any means. I hit 431 homers in my career, hit a lot of homers that were line drives and in batting practice I could compete with most anybody. That particular time I saw the ball pretty well and I put together some nice looking swings. I was capable, certainly, but let’s just say it was a Home Run Derby that I’ll always remember.
Alright, thank you Cal, it’s been a pleasure.
Cool, thank you man!
Cal Ripken Jr. is now joining Head & Shoulders’ “Hats Off” movement, which invites fans to use social media and custom Twitter hashtags to salute MLB teams for their outstanding accomplishments on the field – and help charity at the same time.
Starting today and ending after the All Star game on August 12th, Head & Shoulders will make a special $10 charitable donation each time baseball fans use any of the MLB team “Hats Off” hashtags that are listed at the Head & Shoulders for Men Facebook fan page. Donations will benefit Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) charity program, which establishes and supports baseball leagues in needy communities.
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