In Game of Tradition and Myths, Ripken Is Genuine Icon

AS an infant, Cal Ripken Jr. was lulled to sleep by his father's tales of life in baseball's minor leagues. As a toddler, he'd watch his dad from the stands - then play his own game afterward, with a rolled-up scorecard for a bat, a crushed cup for a ball, and a hot-dog-wrapper home plate glued to the ground with mustard.

At 10, he had a backyard batting cage made of scrap wire and metal. At 16, he could hit a ball into the bleachers at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. At 21, he'd already taken part in the longest pro ballgame ever played.

Cal Ripken's streak of baseball began a long time ago. Today, barring some unforeseen event, it will reach a historic level, as the Baltimore Orioles' big-shouldered shortstop ties Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played in the major leagues. When he takes the field tomorrow and breaks a record that long seemed untouchable, the noise from Oriole Park may be loud enough to cross the Atlantic and awaken people sleeping in Portugal.

After all, Cal Jr. is more than a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's a rare athlete who works hard, signs autographs for free, and hopes children will look up to him. He's a Maryland boy who grew up just north of here and has played his whole career for his hometown major league team.

If baseball is the sport of American tradition and myths, then Ripken promises to be an icon as admirable to future generations as Yankee great Gehrig is today. This is what they think of him around here: To get a good spot for its new Cal Ripken Museum, his birthplace of Aberdeen, Md., evicted its own city hall.

''I don't know what to do,'' said Ripken the other day when asked about his response to the standing ovations that now follow him wherever he goes. ''You feel really good. You almost want to cry sometimes.''

So how hard is it, really, to play 2,131 baseball games? Look at it this way: Since ''Junior'' (his Oriole nickname) started his streak, in the second game of a double-header on May 30, 1982, other major league teams have used 525 starting shortstops. Ripken himself has won a Rookie of the Year award, two Most Valuable Player awards, married and fathered two children, and lost most of his hair. Some 3,700 other players have gone on the disabled list.

Last week alone, Oakland A's outfielder Ricky Henderson sat down because he wasn't ''mentally prepared'' to play. Giant multisport star Deion Sanders missed two games because of a headache.

Where Ripken comes from you need better excuses than those to miss work. True story: His father once purposely drilled a hole in his own toenail so that the swelling would subside and he could continue playing a game of soccer.

''To me, I think [the streak] means something different than it means to everybody else,'' said Ripken. ''It just means that I want to play.''

That's a desire the young Ripken picked up in the clubhouses of the many minor league teams his father played for, and, later, managed: Amarillo, Texas; Elmira, N.Y.; Fox Cities, Wis.; to name a few. When promoted to scout and coach for the Orioles themselves, Cal Sr. settled his family when he had grown up, in Aberdeen.

Cal Jr. became a multisport star and B-grade student at Aberdeen High, just like his father. He didn't have a perfect attendance record - but those who remember him claim he was as mature at 17 as he is now at 35.

''He has maintained himself as an example of what an athlete should be,'' says Aberdeen Mayor Chuck Boutin, who as head of the board of education handed the future star his high school diploma (''I can still see his blue eyes coming across the stage'').

The young Cal picked up baseball skills not so much from his father as from his father's charges. A well-known hanger-on at Memorial Stadium, he was constantly bugging the major league stars to teach him their tricks.

An Oriole slick-fielding shortstop of the late '60s, Mark Belanger, remembers teaching him how to cover second on a stolen base: Never grab for the catcher's throw. Let it come to you, then slap on the tag, because you can't move your arm out and back as fast as the throw will be traveling.

Cal Jr. was drafted by the Orioles and signed his first pro contract at 17. ''I knew right away he was going to make it,'' says Ralph Rowe, who was a coach on Ripken's Bluefield, W.Va., rookie league team.

The youngster had signed with thoughts of being a pitcher, but Mr. Rowe sent him to shortstop instead, figuring Ripken could always take to the mound if it turned out he couldn't hit.

It turned out he could. Not only that, it turned out that the slim infielder was growing into a player whose size would be one of his greatest assets after he was called up to the bigs at age 21.

Rowe, who joined the Orioles himself as a batting coach, remembers the night in 1982 when Cal Jr. finally broke out of a horrendous rookie slump and proved he could play at the major league level. ''It was against the Angels in California,'' says Rowe, now retired and living in South Carolina. ''He hit a home run in the eighth to win the game. From then on, it's just been 'Go get 'em, buddy.'''

Not that the Cal Jr. story is pure hero-worship hagiography. Junior has at times been criticized for a lack of off-the-field leadership. (On road trips, he typically stays at a different hotel from his teammates, and travels in his own rented limousine.) His streak, some whisper, has long been a distraction for the Orioles, who overall have lost more games than then have won in the last 13 years. At times he seems to carry himself stiffly, as if he's trying too hard to live up to his own vision of a living legend.

Sure, he's the best power-hitting shortstop of all time. But that's like being the swiftest catcher in history - a notable accomplishment, but not that hard, considering the competition. No one will ever mistake him for a raw, natural athlete on the level of Mickey Mantle, or even just-retired Tiger outfielder Kirk Gibson. At bat, Ripken still sometimes looks as if he's holding a table leg and has visions of clubbing a snake.

But consider this: All indications are that today's major leaguers respect Cal Jr. more than any other player.

In baseball's summer of labor discontent, when many players and owners still seem part of a conspiracy that's trying to make arena football the national pastime, Cal Ripken is a rare bit of good news.

''There isn't a statistic that can measure this guy,'' says Seymour Siwoff, of the Elias Sports Bureau, which compiles major league stats. ''It's the measure of the man. If there was a single person you'd pick to break Gehrig's record, it would be Cal Ripken.''

He's getting standing ovations not just from the fans, but from entire opposing teams. His defensive skills are legendary. He changes position in the field, not just for every batter, but for every pitch. Second basemen playing next to him have been known to complain that he makes them think so hard they end games mentally exhausted.

And after all these years, and multi-million dollar contracts, and MVP awards and one World Series triumph, Ripken still wads up tape and hits it with a scorecard in the Orioles clubhouse. At 35 he remains a kid who loves to play games. His biggest extravagance is full-size gym at his house, where he plays pickup basketball constantly. At pool parties of Orioles players, he's been known to spend the whole time in the water, splashing around with the children instead of talking mutual funds with the adults. After away games, he sometimes engages in baseball variations with his own teammates, playing pitch-and-catch or home-run derby until maintenance crews turn out the stadium lights.

Then there's that autograph thing. Lately, he's taken to staying after games and signing his name for a line that began forming somewhere about the fifth inning.

''Everybody looks up to you when you're a big leaguer,'' Ripken told an interviewer in his rookie year of 1981. ''I want respect. That's what I always wanted.''

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