By Barry Janoff
September 22, 2016: Cal Ripken Jr. knows more than a lot when it comes to participating in baseball at the height of stardom, being at the center of a streak of historic proportions, going on a farewell tour and working as a TV analyst and commentator.
Which puts him in rarified air with another icon of baseball: Vin Scully.
Ripken played with the Baltimore Orioles for 21 seasons (Aug. 10, 1981 - Oct. 6, 2001), was a 19-time all-star, two-time MVP (1983, 1991), World Series winner (1983) and hit 431 home runs (most in MLB history by a shortstop),
Nicknamed The Iron Man, he broke the consecutive-games played streak of 2,130 set by Lou Gehrig (aka The Iron Horse) on Sept. 6, 1995 in Camden Yards. Ripken went on to play in 2,632 consecutive games (and 3,001 total in his regular season MLB career).
Ripken is heavily involved in promoting youth baseball. In 1999, Babe Ruth League, Inc. changed the name of its largest division (5-12 year-olds) from Bambino to Cal Ripken Baseball. Currently, more than 700,000 youths worldwide are part of Cal Ripken Baseball.
He is majority owner of the MiLB Aberdeen (MD) IronBirds, which play in Ripken Stadium, part of a complex that includes several fields that are home to local youth sports leagues, and includes such partners as Leidos, Under Armour and CareFirst.
Ripken was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007 on his first ballot, with 98.53% of the vote
Vin Scully has been the broadcast voice for the Dodgers since 1950, when they were in Brooklyn, and headed west with the team when the franchise moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season. His 67 years covering the team are the most by any broadcaster in sports history. Scully, who received the Ford Frick Award from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and a Life Achievement Emmy Award in 1995, will call his final game on Oct. 2.
Ripen, who began working for Turner Sports in 2007, is preparing for his analyst/commentator gig alongside Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling and Gary Sheffield for MLB on TBS, which has exclusive coverage of American League playoff games (Wild Card scheduled for Oct. 4, ALDS scheduled to begin Oct. 6 and the ALCS scheduled to begin Oct. 14).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Ripken about Scully, The Streak, retiring Boston Red Sox icon David “Big Papi” Ortiz, pitchers who might have thrown at him, his support of youth baseball and MiLB and playing Hillbilly Baseball with his brother, Billy.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Outfielder Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers and pitcher Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants have had an on-going feud, which escalated the other night Was there any pitcher who had it in for you during your career?
Cal Ripken Jr.: There was no specific pitcher I can name. But you know when you are being thrown at on purpose. It depends on how the game is going. And you deal with it in your own way. But many times you don’t know if a close pitch was thrown that way on purpose. Only the pitcher knows. My first year or so, a lot of pitchers were testing me. Trying to intimidate me and move me off the plate. But when you get knocked down and stand right back up, and if you do something — get a hit or drive in a run — it eliminates (the testing).
NYSJ: Did you, or do you still, hold a grudge against any opposing pitchers?
CR: There were some pitchers I’d get mad at, but nothing like a feud or anything on-going. Toward the end of my career, and especially when I was about to break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games played record, it seemed as if pitchers were being careful not to hit me. They weren’t giving me any leeway. They wanted to get me out. But I did hear from pitchers who said that they didn’t want to be known as the pitcher who injured Ripken and put an end to the streak. (Laughs.) If that thought trickled into their head, that was an advantage for me.
NYSJ: You experienced a farewell season in 2001, which Vin Scully is doing now after 67 years of broadcasting the Dodgers. What are your memories of him and thoughts on how he is handling his last season?
CR: Talk about a streak in baseball. I had the opportunity to interview him for TBS couple of weeks ago. And you know he is getting inundated with interview requests. So when they asked him if he could be interviewed by Cal Ripken, I felt he would be thinking, I didn’t know that Cal Ripken interviews anybody! (Laughs.) But he was great. We sat down and I started to ask him questions. But just as quickly, he turned it around and started interviewing me. And it became a really cool conversation. It’s almost hard to believe that he won’t be at games anymore. He has been around for so long. When I was speaking with him, and when you hear him during broadcasts, he is just as insightful as ever and a great advocate for the game. I was thinking, Why are you leaving? But he felt it was time.
NYSJ: Did the topic of the emotions of farewell tours come up?
CR: I did ask him about that. I had almost all of my last season after I announced my retirement. There was a lot of closure. A lot of the guys on other teams would come over and talk to me. But I was in the dugout or on the field. Vin spends most of his time in the broadcast booth (in the Vic Scully Press Box in Dodger Stadium). But you see guys searching him out to speak with him. Big Papi (David Ortiz), Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals), (Chicago Cubs manager) Joe Maddon a couple of times. A lot of people wanting to take their picture with him. When I asked him how he was handling it, he said, It’s wonderful. He was amazed at how many people wanted to speak with him and tell him what he meant to them. In many ways, you’re celebrating an icon. And there’s some sadness there. We are going to miss him. (See the interview here.)
NYSJ: Did you feel any unique pressure your final season that Scully might also be experiencing?
CR: You really want to do your job, for me being on the field and for Vin being in the broadcast booth. You don’t want any extra attention or distractions. But I think it was Paul Molitor who said to me, Just go with it. Don’t try to control it. I think what Vin is doing is surrendering to all the love. And he’s enjoying it. I remember I was sweating like crazy. I don’t know if it was from being nervous or I was just really hot.
NYSJ: You had an amazing streak, but how do you put what he has done for almost 70 years into perspective?
CR: To do something for that long, and do it that well, is amazing. I always thought that I was playing a kid’s game, so I was’t really working. You do it every day, but you get time off. So it is a streak of many years of doing 162 games. With Vin, it was doing it every day, all the time. I did ask him about the changes he has seen in the game, and he talked about pitchers and how they used to go complete games on a regular basis and now they are taken out after the fifth inning. And the traveling has changed because you have to remember when he was with the Dodgers in Brooklyn there were no teams west of St. Louis. But it’s cool to think about all the players he has seen and all the changes that the game has experienced. He still has a love for the game, a great appreciation for the game, which goes back to when he played at Fordham.
"I did hear from pitchers who said that they didn’t want to be known as the pitcher who injured Ripken and put an end to the streak."
NYSJ: How do you see your role with TBS in the upcoming playoffs?
CR: I’m not a broadcaster, but as an analyst I try to bring to life the intricacies of the game, what’s happening or some perspectives that I see to enhance the overall broadcast. At times, when I talk about a current player, I use examples of players that I faced. So (recently) I was talking about (Detroit Tigers pitcher) Daniel Norris and I said he reminded me of (former New York Yankees pitcher) Ron Guidry (who retired in 1988). And then I thought, How many people (listening) remember seeing Ron Guidry pitch!?
NYSJ: There was a game recently where you moved from the booth to the field. How did that come about and how did it work?
CR: I enjoy being in the broadcast booth. But before that game I asked if I could be near the dugout instead of in the broadcast booth, which is high above the field. I was a member of the broadcast team but in a different location. And i got to see the manager’s signals. Hear the players talk about what was happening during the game. I found myself really watching what was going on. Paying attention to all of the details. That was fun for me and provided a new angle for the broadcast. We might try that during the playoffs.
NYSJ: Talking about farewell tours, do you see David Ortiz finishing his career like Kobe Bryant, who had 60 points in his final game, maybe hitting six or eight home runs in the post-season?
CR: (Laughs.) I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes out in Big Papi style. His history has been to take his focus from the regular season and move it to a higher level. Arguably, he is the greatest clutch hitter ever in the post-season. It would be a great story. I mean, I’m watching him now and I’m thinking, Why are you retiring? The things he is still able to do (including most home runs in a season by a player 40-plus and most home runs by a player in his final season). He has a lot left in the tank. But physically, I’m sure it’s wearing him down. But I’d be surprised if he wasn’t an integral part of Boston’s playoffs.
NYSJ: Was dealing with your final season also a mental challenge?
CR: It was. It was very emotional. Saying goodbye was very emotional. I felt like I was getting to the finish line very slowly. I was coming off of back surgery, and you find yourself spending more time off the field getting ready for your time on the field. So you have to weight your options; you have to decide if you can perform at the level you want to be at. Even traveling on a plane from one game to another is not as comfortable.
NYSJ: Looking at this year’s post-season, do you see the Chicago Cubs, having experienced the post-season last year but coming up short, as adding to their motivation?
CR: When you get in to the playoffs, the excitement level is up. But if you have been there, you know how to control your emotions. The experience is vital. You realize that if you have to field a ground ball, you execute the same as you did in April. It’s the same rules, the same plays, the same skills. But it is a more important atmosphere. But you don’t know that until you’ve been through it. Joe (Maddon) has been to the World Series (winning in 2002 as a coach with the then California Angels, losing in 2008 as manager for the Tampa Bay Rays), so he has experienced it and, I would thing, knows how to handle the experience with his players. I would pick the Orioles but would it be an interesting story if the Cubs and Red Sox played in the World Series.
NYSJ: What do you think about baseball being back in the Olympics starting with 2020 in Japan?
CR: I like that. I like the World Baseball Classic, because you get to play for your country. There would be logistical issues (the Summer Games take place during MLB season). But more of the world is learning about baseball and the Olympics would be a great way to see players from places you normally wouldn’t see. I’ve been to Japan touring as a player and they have a long history with the game. So I’m interested to see how it goes there. To bring the game to a younger audience, which I am always trying to do.
NYSJ: There are people who feel that baseball at the MLB level is not in touch with young kids who might grow into baseball players, if not fans. Do you see MiLB teams as filling that space, with fans and players able to connect in the stadium and teams having fun with promotions and giveaways?
CR: I do. I love the promotions. This season with the IronBirds we had a Hollywood Night, a Star Wars promotion, a Super Heroes Night and a lot of giveaways. We didn’t do my favorite. Have you ever played Hillbilly Horseshoes? You use toilet seats instead of horseshoes. I played with my brother, Billy, between innings of a (MiLB) game. On his last throw he had a leaner and thought he won, but I tossed a ringer and beat him. A lot of fun. Maybe we’ll reinstate that.
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