I walked up to the batter’s box careful — at first — not to make eye contact with the pitcher. After looking down at the dirt while I set my feet at home plate, I peered out to the mound where Cal Ripken Jr., stood hand in glove, looking in at his catcher for the sign. “This is pretty cool,” I thought. “All right, let’s do this.”
The scene reads like a fantasy, I know. In fact, by definition it was a fantasy: the Ripken Baseball Experience at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen 10 years ago, and this was the camp finale — the All-Star game.
I was playing in an over-30 league at the time, and the Ripken Baseball folks called to invite me to play in their All-Star game, in part because so many of the campers were dealing with nagging injuries at the end of their week of playing. And, they needed a catcher. One thing I learned about being a catcher: Someone could always use you, especially when it’s older guys playing.
Billy and Cal Ripken were the pitchers on opposing teams in this “All-Star” game. I caught Billy for a couple innings (he throws a wicked curveball with a cartoonish break on it) before getting my first at-bat against Cal. The Iron Man’s first pitch was a fastball low and away, and I watched ball one. Fact is, had he thrown it right down the middle, I would’ve watched it, too.
I was pretty much frozen in the moment, but I thawed and relaxed for pitch number two — right down the middle, and I smacked a single to left field. I sprinted to first and made a wide turn, full of myself for having singled off of Cal Ripken Jr., Hall-of-Fame infielder with a rocket arm. Sure, Cal was not in his prime, but neither was I, and I could claim a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment. Then came at-bat number two.
Cal is renowned for his competitiveness … in everything. He’s also known for his depth of knowledge for the game of baseball and all of its detailed strategies, angles and nuances. He put his Hall-of-Fame bank of experience and knowledge to work against me when I dug in for our second confrontation.
He reared back for something extra on pitch one — a live fastball, again low and away. “Strike,” said the home plate umpire. I put one foot out of the batter’s box to process the moment: the pitcher is Cal Ripken, we’re in Ripken Stadium, the umpire called that a strike, and I’m in for some payback. Pitch number two — I’m gearing up for a fastball, figuring Cal wants to blow me away, but he had me figured out and delivered a deceptive changeup that had me swinging at air. “Strike two!”
Fine. I’ve been 0-2 MANY times in my amateur baseball days. I’m gonna shorten up my stroke, protect the plate and try to stay alive in the at-bat. Expecting anything but having to prep my swing for a fastball, pitch number three was a fastball, letters high, and I was still in my swing when the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. The walk of shame to the dugout. Struck out by Cal Ripken Jr. He got me.
The game ended with Cal’s team beating Billy’s team, 2-1. We lined up for the postgame handshakes and, as Cal and I came together, he pulled me out of the line. “Do you know how I got you out in that second at-bat?” he asked. “You’re Cal Ripken, and we’re playing in Ripken Stadium,” was my sarcastic response.
He chuckled, then with great detail and care, he broke down his pitching approach. “I saw your bat speed that first time up. I was pretty sure I knew how to set you up the next time. Fastball, changeup, fastball. I told my pitchers for years how they could get aggressive hitters with a good changeup. A lot of ’em were afraid to throw it. I think it’s a great pitch. That strike three fastball wasn’t that fast, but it looked like it, didn’t it?”
Well, dang. That right there was the highlight of my experience. Not the single off Cal Ripken, but the detailed explanation from Cal on how he struck me out. He wanted me to know how he did it, not in a boastful way, but in a pure “this is how to play baseball” way. The camp was called the Ripken Baseball Experience, and that’s one experience I’ll remember forever.
Mark Viviano is the sports director at WJZ-TV and has reported sports in Baltimore for 24 years. He is not a Baltimore native, and likes to remind fans that he’s a transplant from St. Louis — like Earl Weaver & the Orioles (who were the St. Louis Browns).
Editor’s Note: Just before the start of April’s Sole of the City 10K, the race director introduced Mark Viviano, who provided words of encouragement and a warning for runners who had Oriole questions: Ask them on the course because he had to “run” to the MASN studios for the “Wall to Wall Baseball” show after the race. That perfectly describes Viviano — a man who always seems to be on the run, literally and figuratively, yet always appears to be in control. The WJZ-TV Sports Director broke the news that the Cleveland Browns were coming to Baltimore, beating a number of solid pros pursuing the story. He also routinely beats other strong runners in the many local races he runs. We have appreciated his professional and community work, and do so again for his essay about facing Cal Ripken Jr.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] and [email protected] for consideration.