Earlier this year, Cal Ripken, Jr., the former Baltimore Orioles' shortstop known as baseball's "Ironman" for playing in 2,632 consecutive games, capped his phenomenal career with a first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. Now he's talking about his first picture book, The Longest Season, (Philomel) which chronicles the lowest point of his baseball life: the Orioles' 1988 season, which began with a record-shattering 21 consecutive losses and cost the manager, Ripken's father, Cal Sr., his job. Bookshelf caught up with Ripken, Jr., just after he finished shoveling snow from his driveway in Baltimore, Maryland.
First off, congratulations on your election to the Hall of Fame!
Thank you. The thing it's really reminding me of is like when you have your first child or get married, everybody's congratulating you and everyone is happy for you. That's the closest thing to this.
Tell us how this works. Did you know you were in before the public announcement?
The voting takes place after the World Series, then they collect the ballots and tabulate them and the results are announced—this year it was on January 9. But they called before then and asked where I would be on the ninth; give us a few phone numbers. I told them I'd be home and they said, 'If you get in, you'll get a call about 1 o'clock.' So I was sitting at the kitchen table at about 12:45, staring at the phone, thinking, 'Let's go. Ring.' I don't remember exactly what time it was. It wasn't 1 o'clock exactly on the dot but it was a pretty sweet moment. They went on about the stats, how many votes I got, etc., etc., but I glossed over it at that point. All you want to hear is, 'You're in.' "
You mean you had butterflies in your stomach even though everyone in the world was saying "Ripken's a lock on the first ballot?"
Everybody said that but it's not real until it actually happens, so I tried not to get caught up in that. It wasn't to the point that I couldn't sleep the night before, but I was a little nervous.
Is it ironic to be publishing The Longest Season, about the Orioles epic 21-game losing streak, while all anyone wants to talk about is the Hall of Fame?
A little. A losing streak like that is one of those things you'd prefer to suppress. Reliving it is painful. It was really a miserable time. But in first talking about the concept for a book, I thought it's a lesson worth repeating. A lot of people think I had such a rosy career, but I wanted to identify that one of the things that helps you have a long career is learning how to deal with adversity, how to get past it.Once I learned how to get through that, others things didn't seem so hard.
The text reads a lot like a diary. Do you keep a journal?
There have been times in my life when I felt compelled to write things down as a matter of therapy, but whatever I kept about those days, I shredded. It was too personal. But now I'm 46, about to be 47, and as you start to tell the stories of your life, you wonder about the accuracy of your memories and I'm sorry I discarded some of that stuff.
So how did you go about recreating your thoughts during the streak?
Well, 0 and 21 is 0 and 21. There's no uncertainty there. It's part of the historical record. And there was a lot of information available to remind me of the specifics. Not that I needed much reminding. It's still incredibly fresh in my mind. When things happen to you in the worst way, you live with it, you go over it, you think, "What else could I have done?" We were getting all this attention from the media for all the wrong reasons.
What do you think the experience taught you?
It taught me to reach across the crossroads and get closer to my teammates. How to be a better teammate. It was us against the rest of the world. We had to stick together.
Your brother, Billy, and father [Ripken Sr., died in 1999] were members of that 1988 team, too, and you and Billy still work together.
Billy and I are involved in minor league baseball and youth sports and we have a radio show on XM that's just about to start up again for the season.
I read somewhere recently that you expressed an interest in perhaps one day owning the Orioles.
Well, I get this question all the time and give the same answer but sometimes it gets more play than other times. Are you interested in managing or coaching? Yes, but not at this phase of my life. [Ripken's children] Rachel and Ryan are still in school and I want to be close to them. Would you be interested in shaping an organization? Yes, and the Orioles would be the perfect one. I meet regularly with Mr. Angelos [Peter Angelos, the Orioles' principal owner]. He had an advisory role in starting the Cal Sr. Foundation, and I value his judgment and opinion. He was instrumental in Billy and my getting the Orioles single-A team in Aberdeen. But that's as far as it goes right now.
You mentioned Rachel and Ryan, whom fans will remember as little kids joining you on the field the night [in 1995] you broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played record. Are they athletes, too?
Rachel is 17 now and starting to look at colleges. She played JV basketball, but she had a tough choice to make because she also was chosen for a dance company and that is every bit as much of a commitment as a sport. So she's dancing. Ryan is now 13, in seventh grade, and five-foot-eleven. He plays every sport—baseball, soccer, basketball—and he just started football.
What do they think of your new book?
Well, I gave it to them, but they have a bunch of books I've written on their shelf.
But they know about the losing streak though, right?
Well, they weren't even born yet during the streak but every time any team goes on a losing streak, SportsCenter will mention the Orioles' streak, so we've talked about that, and what a terrible time it was. They know I wouldn't want any other team to break that record because I wouldn't want anybody else to go through what we went through. But they also know that you can get through something like that, and once you do, you know you can get through just about anything.