A Legend, a Game, and a Ball
By Bob Ravener '81
On October 30, 2013, I mingled with several business executives in the Vanderbilt University baseball press box. We awaited the arrival of major league baseball icon Cal Ripken, Jr., who was coming to Nashville, Tennessee, as part of a promotional tour. Meeting him had been on my bucket list for many years, not just because of his Hall of Fame career or record-breaking athletic feats. For me the desire was connected to an event that occurred when I was stationed at USNA as a junior lieutenant—an unforgettable event that touched my life, impacted Navy baseball in a unique way, and might have affected Ripken’s legendary career.
The year was 1985. On April 11, an unseasonably warm spring day, Annapolis was still abuzz over the David Robinson-led, giant-slaying midshipmen of the hard court who had created quite a stir in the NCAA’s that year.
While the Academy swelled with pride over that round ball achievement, another round, yet smaller white sphere created its own stunning memory. That day, the highly accomplished Navy nine of the baseball diamond, expertly coached by the wily Joe Duff, were playing THE Baltimore Orioles.
The 1985 Orioles’ team had much to boast about. Only one full season removed from winning the World Series, players and coaches on that team would go on to achieve historic acclaim with three eventual Hall of Famers (Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Jr.), league and World Series MVPs (Fred Lynn, Rick Dempsey), some of the game’s best pitchers (Dennis Martinez, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanigan), among several other perennial All-Stars. When the Orioles took the field for batting practice and infield, the Navy players stopped what they were doing just to marvel at the talent taking the field before them.
Being a Navy baseball coach gave me unfettered access to the field and the dugouts. As I surveyed the stadium, I instantly thought about the historic significance of having a baseball signed by a team of major league players. Because it was an exhibition game for the Orioles, they were more relaxed, if not a little tired from playing a game against the Texas Rangers the previous day.
Before the game started, I walked into the Orioles dugout, a little intimidated but undaunted in my quest. I first approached Frank Robinson, bench coach at the time and the only player in history to have won the Most Valuable Player Award in both leagues and who eventually became the first black manager in MLB history.
With a quick hello and a stroke of the pen, he signed the ball, giving his implicit approval for others to do it. Down the line of players I went. One signature came from Freddy Lynn, the first player in MLB history to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP award in the same year. Scott McGregor, a twenty game winner and World Series star also penned his name. Record-setting defensive second baseman, Rich Dauer, joined in the act. Future Orioles manager and long-time coach Cal Ripken, Sr., signed it too. In all, sixteen on the squad put their names on the ball. My mission was almost complete.
One young player missing in the lineup that day, already a rising superstar, was Cal Ripken, Jr. By the end of his third full major league season (1984), he had already claimed Rookie of the Year honors (1982) and American League MVP (1983), while leading the Orioles to their first World Series championship since 1970. On the previous day, Cal sprained his ankle against the Texas Rangers and didn’t make the trip to Annapolis. In fact, he was listed as questionable the next day, April 12, in a series set to open with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Ten years later, in 1995, Ripken would set a monumental record of 2131 consecutive games played, ultimately reaching 2632 games before he took a seat on the bench. But this early in his career, and on that day, no one was thinking about the “streak”, simply because it has always been considered unbreakable and Ripken had only played 444 straight games , though nobody was counting at that point.
Scott Wild (’85) opened the game on the hill for Navy and held the Orioles scoreless in the first inning. In the bottom of the first, Navy jumped out to a 2-0 lead off Oriole starter Ken Dixon on a walk to catcher Ted Wallace (’87) and run-scoring doubles by Marius Jones (’86) and Leeney. The Orioles got serious and battled back with a run in the second and again in the third inning to tie the game at 2-2
Dixon may have been stunned early by the potent Navy bats, but he buckled down and held them scoreless over the next four frames, at one point, striking out five Navy hitters in a row before giving way to the next pitcher, Dennis Martinez in the sixth. Jon Mullican (’85) promptly singled off Martinez, Mark Bayly (’86) doubled, and Dishman’s RBI ground out tied the game again in the sixth inning at 3-3, turning what easily could have been a blow out into a nail-biter.
The Orioles couldn’t convert in the top of the seventh, and final, inning. Jones singled off Martinez to give Navy life in the bottom half of the frame. Just as it appeared the exhibition game was going to end in a tie, with two outs and a full count, Leeney hit a walk-off double, his second two-bagger of the game, to score Jones with the winning run and change the course of their season.
That historic day in Annapolis had an impact on the Navy baseball program. The team went on to finish 25-7-1 that season. That momentum catapulted them to a league championship the next year with the first thirty-win season on record for a Navy baseball team and another coveted trip to the NCAA tournament. Joe Duff went on to win 595 games as the legendary head coach before retiring in 1995.
Fast forward to October 30, 2013. Word spread quickly that Ripken was in the building. For 28 years, I’d been thinking about a way to add his signature to the ball I treasured. . When he entered the room, still larger than life with his steel blue eyes, six foot four frame and warm, personable smile, he made some brief comments and began to work the crowd. I approached him, showed him the ball, and then recounted the story of the historic Annapolis game.
He smiled as if the video had re-wound for him and asked to hold the ball. Purposefully and slowly, he flipped it in his massive hands, studying each signature. I could tell his memory banks were thrust full throttle in reverse. As he revisited the season and his teammates, he recalled that ’85 was a big free agent year. He paused reflectively at the signature of his Dad, then continued to analyze each name on the ball. He smiled again, looked up and said, “I can tell you exactly why I wasn’t there.” He mentioned the ankle injury and the need to stay in Baltimore for treatment. He told me how much his ankle still hurt during the series with the Blue Jays.
I asked, “Would you sign the ball?”
He seemed genuinely humbled by the request. In fact, he awkwardly asked, “Where do you want me to sign it?”
I replied, as any fan would, “Anywhere you want.”
He flipped it again and again before he paused and said, “I think I’ll sign right here under Freddy Lynn.” And so he did, handed it back, and thanked me for taking him back to the past and the glory years. As he moved on to speak to someone else, I couldn’t help but feel that the ball had given him an unexpectedly pleasant memory.
No one will ever know what would have happened if a league game for the Orioles had been scheduled for April 11, 1985, instead of the exhibition contest against Navy. And what if Cal Ripken had injured his ankle further by playing that day to please the fans? He has said publicly that he never intended to break the streak or even thought about it until it was within reach. In 1985, missing one game would have had little significance.
Would anyone have believed that a team of college players could hand the Orioles their first loss in 1985, however unofficial it was in the books? And who would have thought that almost 29 years later, a former assistant Navy coach and a famous baseball icon would share an experience that brought back such fond memories for both?
(About the author: A 1981 USNA graduate, Bob Ravener played baseball for Navy and legendary coach Joe Duff, was a battalion commander, and is past president of his class. He served on active duty as a strategic weapons officer aboard the USS Daniel Webster SSBN 626 Gold, and was an assistant baseball coach, academic liaison officer, boxing instructor, and recruiter while stationed at the Naval Academy from 1985-1986. He is an award-winning and highly accomplished business leader who has spent over 25 years in the corporate world and had his first book published in 2013 titled Up! The Difference Between Today and Tomorrow Is You)