There are two reasons we remember Billy Ripken.
Neither of them have anything to do with the way he played second base, or even baseball, during his 11-year career.
The second is the message he wrote on that baseball card up there: “FUCK FACE”
It was 1989. The year I started getting into baseball. It was a Fleer. Number 616.
His pose was pretty traditional – except for the knob of Ripken’s bat.
Fleer freaked and tried a few bad fixes. Marker. Airbrushing. Even one covered in White-Out before settling on a Borat-esque black censor’s box. All told, there are apparently at least 10 versions. Wikipedia tells me the whiteout one’s now worth $120.
ESPN’s Tim Kurjkian – at the time a reporter with the Baltimore Sun – herded up some incredible stories. Like the one about a kid, a big Ripken fan, who bought a whole mess of #616s from a card dealer for $50. A collection that, after the curse was discovered, was now worth was closer to $20,000. Another story about a boy who sued another kid for convincing him to sell his Billy Ripken for $1, without knowing the curse was on the bat. And perhaps the ultimate: the one that made it onto the Geraldo episode, “Men Who Write Bad Things In Public Places,” on which an audience member claimed they’d written the money phrase on Ripken’s bat.
Over the years, Ripken’s insisted it was he who stained the stick. In 2008, he opened up to Darren Rovell:
“At Memorial Stadium, the bat room was not too close to the clubhouse, so I wanted to write something that I could find immediately if I looked up and it was 4:44 and I had to get out there on the field a minute later and not be late. There were five big grocery carts full of bats in there and if I wrote my number 3, it could be too confusing. So I wrote ‘F–k’ Face on it.”
“In early January, I got a call from our PR guy Rick Vaughn. He said, ‘Billy, we have a problem.’ He told me what was written on the bat and I couldn’t believe it. I went to a store and saw the card and it all came back to me. We were in Fenway Park and I had just taken my first round of BP. I threw my bat to the third base side and strolled around the bases. When I was coming back, right before I got up to hit again, I remember a guy tapping me on the shoulder asking if he could take my picture. Never once did I think about it. I posed for the shot and he took it.”
It’s now the Opening Series of 2012 and a mint edition of the card will cost you $110 on eBay. Ripken now works as a colour commentator for the MLB Network and says he doesn’t know where the bat is today. Maybe borrowed all those years ago by Brady Anderson or some other Oriole.
“Fleer sent me some of the cards out of the goodness of their heart. I autographed them and used them for my gifts to my groomsman in my wedding (that offseason). I figured, at the time, it was better than giving them a set of cufflinks. I think I devalued the cards by signing them though.”
“When people recognize me, I see the look on their face. They think of the card immediately and, before they even ask, I say, ‘Yeah, it was me.’ I don’t know if it happens daily, but, to this day, it still happens a couple of times a
So sure, Cal was the superstar; Billy, the plugger. But they each have their own legend in the end. That’s the beauty of baseball. One brother can be cast in bronze relief. The other can always look to the spring of 1989 when his image and sense of humour set boys atwitter with mischief.
Oh, and Cal’s card from 1989? It’s number 617 and retails on Amazon for $1.95