Bill Ripken will never forget the advice his dad, Cal Ripken Sr., gave him the day he signed with the Orioles. The year was 1982 and Bill had just graduated from high school. They were sitting at a table at home in Aberdeen, Md., when Orioles scout Jim Gilbert gave Bill a contract worth $20,000.
As usual, dad’s advice was direct.
“I said, ‘Do I have to read the contract?’ ‘’ Bill says. “Dad said, ‘No, but what it says is that if they ask you to do something, you better do it.’ That was the influence of Senior.’‘
The Ripken story is classic Baltimore, but Bill had to work his way through the minors before he could join his dad the manager and his brother, Cal Ripken Jr., the shortstop, in 1987 to make baseball history as the only family to have a dad managing two sons on the same big league team.
“When I look back, I don’t think there is anything better that standing next to your brother during the national anthem and having your dad in the dugout as the manager,’’ Bill says.
But when he reported to Bluefield, W. Va., to play rookie ball, Bill wasn’t thinking about how many Ripkens could play with the Orioles. “I couldn’t,” he recalls. “I was in survival mode.’‘
Bill was playing for Triple-A Rochester in July 1987 when his manager John Hart - now a fellow analyst on the MLB Network - told him he had been promoted to the Orioles.
Bill had an idea it was coming. Cal Jr. had given him a heads-up. Pete Stanicek, a top prospect, had been promoted to Rochester, and Hart sat Bill in a game even though he was on a 9-for-10 streak.
“I told John, ‘Dude, I need to be in there,’ ‘’ Bill says. “John told me to sit at the end of the bench and not get hurt. After the game he said, ‘I guess you know why you didn’t play. You’re going home. They need you in Baltimore.’ ‘’
The next morning, Bill drove to Junior’s house and the brothers went to the ballpark together to prepare for the Minnesota Twins. While Bill had been in the Memorial Stadium clubhouse many times, this day was different.
“I had never seen my name on a locker,’’ Bill says. “It was a strange feeling, but a good one. It’s like you had a place that was all yours.’’
Bill and Cal Jr. turned a double play in the first game. Bill went 0-for-6 in his first two games against the Twins’ Frank Viola and knuckleballer Joe Niekro.
“I remember thinking there ain’t no Frank Viola in the minors. And I didn’t know the last time I saw a knuckleball,’’ he says.
The All-Star break was next, and when the season resumed in Kansas City, Bill got rolling. He had nine multi-hit games in his first month, including six three-hit games. He also had a streak where he hit in 15 of 16 games, including his first home run against the Royals. Teammates gave him the silent treatment.
“I shook Cal’s hand at the plate,” Bill says. “I shook Eddie Murray’s hand because he was batting after Cal. Then, I shook dad’s hand in the dugout. Cal, Eddie and dad. It didn’t matter what every one else was doing.’‘
Bill played seven seasons (1987-92, 1996) with the Orioles as a second baseman. He hit .243 and was known for hustle, defense and fundamentals. His best season was 1990, when he hit .291, an average sandwiched between seasons of .239 and .216.
As much fun as 1987 was, the start of 1988 was the opposite. The Orioles started 0-21 and Bill was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, representing the misery of 107 losses.
“I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone,’’ Bill says. “That’s why I hope that every team gets out of the gate 1-1. No one should have to go through what we did. It was terrible, but the players were never guilty of pointing fingers.’‘
That was when Cal Sr. was fired six games into the season. Bill heard the news on the radio driving to the ballpark. When he arrived, Cal Sr. was gone, but he left a message with the team trainer for Bill and Cal Jr. that he was going to fine. “He told us to take of ourselves, not to worry about him,’’ Bill says.
Bill replaced his uniform No. 3 with Senior’s No. 7: “I couldn’t imagine any one else wearing his number.’‘
The next season, 1989, had its own magic when the Orioles contended for the American League East title until the final weekend in Toronto. It was the “Why Not?’’ season.
Bill says that there’s always talk of chemistry on winning teams, but that losing teams can develop chemistry, too. And for the players, sticking together in 1988 paid off in 1989, when the Orioles won 87 games and finished two games behind Toronto.
“The 1989 season was fun, especially with what happened in 1988,’’ Bill says. “We could feel the mojo developing. We had a stellar defense. We didn’t pull away with a 12- or 15-game winning streak. We won series, and I remember saying to Junior, ‘Dude, this is doable.’ And he said, ‘It is when you win series.’ ‘’
There was no explanation for the high average in 1990, other than there were no nagging injuries, Bill says: “Things seemed to click and I remember it was fun. I know I didn’t have a 129-game hitting streak, but it seemed like every game I was getting a knock.’‘
The Orioles released Ripken after 1992 and he signed with Texas. He later bounced from the Rangers to the Indians and back to the Orioles and Rangers before finishing his career as a Tiger in 1998. It was easy for him to make friends, but he knew something was missing, especially after a tough game.
“On a night when you’d go 0-for-4 with a couple of Ks,” he says, “you didn’t have your brother around to say, ‘Hey let’s go get a bite to eat and forget about it.’ ‘’