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Robinson's First Move: Soothing Ripken's Sons

April 17, 1988|TOM FRIEND | Washington Post

BALTIMORE — Two-thirds of the Orioles' family portrait was intact, though no one expected the two Ripken boys to mug for any camera.

In an earlier place and time--spring training, perhaps--it was commonplace for father, son and son to pose together in orange and black, but young Cal and young Bill stood silently side-by-side during batting practice last Tuesday night, elbows on hips being their consistent posture.

Cal Sr., fired as Orioles manager earlier in the day and replaced by Frank Robinson, had telephoned each son in the afternoon, holding an awkward, hurried chat with each, explaining merely that he didn't want them to hear the humbling news on the radio or from a stranger. Father told neither son what to do or say, besides the obvious: win.

"We didn't get into all that (advice stuff), to be honest," said Cal Jr. before the Orioles' 6-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals in Memorial Stadium. "Really, no special advice, no special conversation."

Shortstop Cal has certainly more leverage than second-year second baseman Bill, and he could've easily criticized the Orioles' front office for firing his father and not been traded for it. But Cal held back when asked how he felt.

"I don't know if I can react to that," he said. "I'd have to sit and think about it."

Robinson's first task as manager was not to doodle out a lineup card, but to touch base with two-ninths of his lineup--the two Ripkens. He called them in to what used to be their dad's office and spoke candidly about his role in the firing. The role, he said, was zero.

"I thought it very important to do that as quick as possible," Robinson would say later. "I wanted them to know I was not upstairs rooting against Cal (Sr.)."

Robinson admitted some of what he said probably slipped in and out of both Ripkens' ears without much thought. He said it was probably too early for them to rationalize everything, though Cal Jr. had clearly accepted it outwardly.

"I've never played for Frank as a manager," Cal Jr. said. "I have a great deal of respect for him as a baseball man. He definitely knows the game, has had the experience in all facets of the game. I'm sure he'll do a good job."

Bill was not so brave, commenting very little about the ordeal ("It wasn't my decision to make," he said), and he also made the most emotional decision so far, choosing to wear his father's uniform number (jersey No. 7) beginning Wednesday night.

"I think Billy took it the hardest," Robinson said, "and I guess that's to be expected also. Cal's been around a little longer and seen these things."

And at points during the five-minute interview that Cal Jr. held Tuesday night, he showed signs of cracking. He pointed out that baseball is a game where you're hired to be fired, but when asked if his father had received a fair shake, he looked skyward and said, "That's not for me to say. Do I have an opinion? Again, I'm a player. I don't have an opinion on that. I'm not supposed to have an opinion on that."

Asked if he had an opinion, speaking merely as a son, he responded, "As a son, I'll keep my opinions to myself."

The subplot here is what ends up happening to Cal after this season. He is a free agent come October, and maybe this firing is his own personal writing on the wall to look elsewhere. Asked about it, he said, "That's not a fair question."

Cal Sr., though, said, "I don't answer for what he does. He's a grown man, and I don't influence his decision.

"They've played for other managers besides me before. They're professional ballplayers. They'll bust their rear ends for whoever's managing."

For Robinson, it's been best to bust your rear for him or else. When he managed in San Francisco, he came out to relieve a pitcher once, and when the pitcher flipped Robinson the ball (instead of handing it over nicely), Robinson grabbed the pitcher by the elbow and jawed at him.

Robinson said Tuesday night, "I'm not going to be spitting fire every time someone makes a mistake." But he'll also want results. He held a team meeting before Tuesday night's game to explain himself in 20 minutes or less, and he said he'll have more explaining to do to every player--one on one--some time this week.

"I'll want to visit with everyone," he said.

This is the fifth time Orioles catcher Terry Kennedy's witnessed a manager firing and he says this was the hardest for him.

"Never played for anybody better," Kennedy said of Cal Sr.

"It wasn't his fault, I don't think. How many cases is it the manager's fault. It happened fast. You've got to make pretty quick emotional judgments when a manager is fired. You might have a game that night. But as bad as we feel, how bad do you think Cal and Billy feel?"

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