Book excerpt: Cal Ripken, a close call in Asheville and long run in The Show

“Never a Bad Game,” which chronicled the first 50 years of the Southern League, has been updated and re-released. (Ordering information below). Over the coming weeks, I’ll present excerpts from 10 of my favorites of the 50 stories told in the book.

Cal Ripken Sr. was a baseball lifer, a winner of more than 1,000 games as a minor league manager. He had a gruff voice and countenance, but had universal respect inside the clubhouse, strict as he might be. One day in the minors, he discovered a pitcher, Dave Johnson, had snuck his golf clubs onto the bus. Ripken ordered the bus emptied, grabbed a brand new box of golf balls Johnson had in the bag and Johnson’s 5-iron. He proceeded to launch the balls into the woods behind the stadium.

Cal Ripken Sr. was manager of the Asheville Orioles in 1972 at age 36, already his 11th season as a manager. The team won the Eastern Division by a game over Savannah, led by guys like league MVP Mike Reinbach, Al Bumbry and Doug DeCinces, and pitchers like Mark Weems who could pitch with either left or right hand, but drowned the following off-season in Venuezuela while playing winter ball. 

Cal Ripken Jr. became the Orioles’ bat boy, just as the author Thomas Wolfe and North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams were in their teen years.  Early arrivals to McCormick Park might find Senior pitching batting practice to Junior. “You could tell he was going to be good,” said Jim Baker, who covered baseball for The Asheville Citizen-Times.

Cal Ripken Sr. and Jr.

Before a game one night, a teenager in a house neighboring the ballpark broke into his parents’ gun closet and starting firing a gun into the air from the porch of the house. Young Ripken was playing catch with Doug DeCinces.

“Cal was like a shadow of mine. He would take ground balls with me every day,” DeCinces said. “We’re halfway up the first baseline and I threw a ball and I heard this pop. All of a sudden there was a whiz and the ground exploded next to me, maybe 10 feet away. I could hear the bullet go by. I was in the Air National Guard and had gone through boot camp and everything registered with me. Like ‘Holy crap, that was a rifle shot.’ And just as that happened I turned and I grabbed Cal on his uniform right at his neck and and started to run off the field. I hear another bang and this time the bullet went about four feet in front of me. It was so close. I don’t think Cal Junior ever touched the ground. I went flying into the dugout.”

“You could hear the bullet,” Ripken told The Winston-Salem Journal years later. “And then you could see it (when it landed). And I wasn’t sure what it was, just a very fast flying object. … I didn’t necessarily think I was at risk, but Doug grabbed me and put me in the dugout. Then I paid him back by taking his job.”

Indeed, the Orioles traded DeCinces to California before the 1982 season for Dan Ford, making room for Cal Ripken, who started at third base in the second game of a May 29, 1982, doubleheader. It’d be 16-plus years before he’d take another day off.

To order a personalized copy of Never a Bad Game, email markfmccarter@gmail.com and provide an address, and we’ll bill $22 via PayPal or Venmo (postage included). Or send check or cash to me at 604 Vance Road SW, Huntsville, AL 35801.

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