We worked together in Baltimore back in 1988 and 1989.
The reason he didn’t remember me, I suppose, is that he was the shortstop and I cut the grass.
All these years later, Cal graciously agreed to an interview with Bugs&Cranks. We asked him about hot streaks, concentration, Randy Milligan’s habit of goofing off between innings and a Kellogg’s promotion he representing.
“You were on the grounds crew for those seasons?” Cal asked me. “That’s cool. I mean, ’89 was cool. Eighty-eight was pretty horrible.”
Horrible, indeed. The O’s were historically bad that season, dropping their first 21 games. I didn’t care.
“Hey, I was making minimum wage, riding the Number 8 bus to 33rd Street and suiting up every night,” I told Cal. “I felt like I was in the big leagues.”
“You were,” was his generous response. “We both were.”
One of the duties of a major league grounds crew guy is to drag the infield after it’s been chewed up by a few innings of play. We’d sprint onto the field with heavy, spikey mats and pull them carefully around the infield by a rope, renewing the field’s fresh dirt. It’s probably a job better suited to horses or mules than people, but I suppose they’d have left shoe marks. Anyway, I recalled to Cal that, before the top of every fifth inning at Memorial Stadium, while me and my pals dragged our mats around and the Orioles warmed up, first baseman Randy Milligan would try to bounce his practice ground balls off our mats, so that they’d hop past the infielders.
Milligan thought it was funny. And it kind of was. But when I’d drag my mat right in front of Cal Ripken at shortstop, I saw the same dead serious expression he wore during every game of his career.
He paused when I told him that. “I’m just thinking about it,” he said. “I analyze everything, but I never analyzed that. That’s cool.”
He continued. “I think once you get into that mode, you have to stay in that mode. There are some personalities that really need to talk to people between innings and break the pressure. And then others, like mine, have to stay in it. Because once you come out, it’s harder to get back in.”
Ripken’s career spanned several versions of the Orioles. There were a few great seasons, a handful of decent seasons and a whole lot of god-awful seasons. Compare that with Lou Gehrig’s career full of pennants and world titles. Seems to me, while both men had remarkable focus and drive to compete, Ripken had the bigger challenge.
Gerhig’s Yankees won every year. They had one bad season – 1925 – in his whole career.
How did Ripken dig deep and keep focus when the Orioles were struggling?
“I’ve played on really bad teams and I’ve had a chance to play on some really good teams – it’s much easier, in my opinion, to play on a winner. Focus is easy, your enthusiasm is there, everything that you’re doing is aimed at winning the game and your focus is that. And that’s what your focus should be.
“When you’re playing for a loser, it becomes frustrating and you have to change your goals. For example, you get off to a bad start and your playoff hopes are done. That’s when you have to say, ‘let’s have a good second half.’ Or sometimes you say ‘let’s have a good month.’ Or even ‘Let’s have a good week or a good series.’ You’re constantly rearranging your goals and your motivation.
“And sometimes you have to fight the urge to play for yourself. Because when you’re on a last-place team, you might want to look at your own numbers, but that’s not how any of us has success. You have to stay immersed in the game and play it the right way. You have to remind yourself all the time about how to play and how to get something out of the game the right way. And that’s really hard to do.
“So, on a bad team, you’re rearranging your focus and constantly reminding yourself of how you play and how your supposed to play. And it does wear you out. But it’s the only way you can go about doing it: creating the right way to do it in your mind, even though the environment you’re doing it in is not ideal.”
Ripken pointed to the early years in his career. “In ’82, we started off a little slow but came on strong at the end. The most exciting series I ever played in was the Milwaukee series; we were three games back with four to play. We beat them the first three games, then ended up losing the last game of the season. And then we won the World Series the very next year. So there was every indication that, for me, this was how baseball was going to be. We were going to be in it in the month of September, this is going to be great. Then it slowly started to erode. We were competetive, we were good, you know, 10 games over .500 or so in ’84 and ’85 and ’86. They were OK years. We weren’t quite there, but we were OK. Then we went into total rebuilding mode after that, which was really, really difficult.
“So, getting back to the playoffs in ’96 and ’97 was wonderful. But, I thought for sure I’d have a chance to play in the playoffs a whole lot more than I did.”
Watching Ripken futz with his batting stance was a favorite pastime in Baltimore. When he wasn’t happy with his hitting, Cal searched for solutions by holding the bat higher or bending his knees deeper.
But when he was hot, no one was more graceful. I asked him about 1991, his second MVP season. Ripken was named MVP of the All Star Game in Toronto and won the previous evening’s home run derby, where he yanked one homer after another into the blue SkyDome seats. What kind of unbelievable rhythm and groove do you have to get in to jack that many homers to win the derby?
“Well, I was in an unbelievable groove that whole year,” he laughed. “It was pretty magical. You’re in that zone. You wish you could snap your fingers and keep yourself in the zone all the time. But you can’t.
“In that particular year, I’d worked really hard and made a lot of gains physically in the off-season. I was at a point in my career where you start to think maybe your skills are deteriorating. So I dedicated myself in the gym and changed all my workout programs. And I changed my stance a little bit and everything just clicked. And I was able to ride that out. When you’re in that sort of groove, you expect good things will happen to you every day. I don’t think I went two games that year without a hit, which is pretty remarkable.”
And that’s how you win the MVP.
Cal didn’t say that. I did.
Cal told me about the Kellogg’s #nevermissagame promotion.
“Kellogg’s and Major League Baseball have partnered to really celebrate fans like you. They’re celebrating the concept of never missing a game. And it’s really the stories of the great lengths that fans will go to avoid missing a game. I was the likely candidate to help deliver the message since I never missed a game for 16 or 17 years. And we want to encourage fans to share their stories.
“You can share your stories at #nevermissagame. There’s a whole bunch of grand prizes. It’s a fun campaign. The prizes are tickets and TVs and cool stuff like that. And the grant prize hasn’t been divulged yet is a “super prize” that all baseball fans will enjoy. They’re keeping that a mystery for now.”
Our thanks to Kellogg’s and to Cal Ripken, Jr. Enter the contest. It’ll be fun.