We interviewed baseball Hall of Fame player Cal Ripken Jr. at the Four Seasons in Manhattan. His latest novel is “Hothead.” We read it and recommend it to all kids who play sports.
What was the inspiration behind “Hothead”?
The first inspiration was to try and create a platform where you talk to kids about some of the issues, values and principles because Dad and Mom taught us about life, through baseball. So I wanted to do that. To give an interesting read to kids, also to talk about issues that are important. The “Hothead” one comes from when I was a kid — I had a temper problem. If things didn’t go my way, I would throw a fit, I would throw a tantrum, sometimes I’d throw a bat or a helmet. My parents tried to tell me that that’s a power source that you could actually tap into as long as you think about it and do positive things with it.
Are any of the characters in your story like Billy, Marty or Connor based on anyone you’ve come across?
The characters in general by all your years with playing sports there’s a similarity, there’s kids that actually have this great personality like Marty Lupus and he’s out talking a better game than he actually plays. And it’s his way of covering himself up a little bit. It’s really fun to bring out those qualities in the characters to really explain a normal setting for a team. The characters came from my own personal experiences, but also the author Kevin Cowherd helped develop those characters really well to make the story more interesting.
How do you feel about your sons following in your footsteps?
I have boy who is 17. He has played sports all his whole life and he’s a pretty good baseball player. I suspect he’s good enough to play in college; who knows if he could develop and play beyond that. The sad part about it is when you have a famous dad that played baseball, the expectations are higher for the son.
What baseball player did you look up to as a kid?
Brooks Robinson, he’s a Hall of Famer. You might have heard of him . . . they used to call him Human Vacuum Cleaner because every ball that was hit down to third, he seemed to suck it up like a vacuum cleaner would. He was a very popular player, made some exciting, diving plays. I think he single-handedly won the World Series for the Orioles in 1970. I wanted to be like him.
If you could change one thing in MLB what would you change or do?
I don’t like the fact that there’s a DH in one league and there’s not a DH in another. So I don’t know which one is right. I’d probably work toward getting one system in both leagues. I don’t know which way I would go yet. I want to make sure both leagues play the same baseball.
What was your toughest work day? Was it playing injured or working out of a slump?
Slumps are a miserable time because it makes you feel like you’re not very good and you end up focusing on the negative all the time. My toughest . . . we started the 1988 0 and 6. And then they fired my dad, who was the manager. So that didn’t make me too happy . . . And then we lost 15 more in a row.. . . But if you love it enough, you’ll keep coming back to try and find the answer. Looking back over it, I was glad I went through that experience because it made me a better person overall. Slumps didn’t seem to be so big after that 0-21 start. I think the key is finding something you love first so you can get through those bad moments.
Are you going to keep the same characters or change?
It’s important to kind of grow with the characters because there might be some interchangeable components. Some kids might move away, or play baseball, or do other things, which is normal life. But some of the main characters — it’s fun to see what happens to them as they grow up. We want the readers to really be attracted to all characters. To feel like with the second book you pick up it’s just a familiar group of kids we want to follow.
In the book it said Conner had tantrums because of what was happening at home. Did you have anything like that?
I think we all have things at home. In Connor’s case his dad lost his job and he could feel the pressure, and he wasn’t sure about what was going on, but it made him feel bad in many ways. All houses have stress. Some are financial, some are other siblings and all kinds of stuff. So I didn’t have the "my dad losing a job" sort of thing. We certainly had some financial issues and things that go round that made you feel uncertain about the future. I think that’s what affects kids when they really don’t understand something.
What was it like playing with Slash being managed by family members?
It’s funny. I did it at the professional level. I had my dad be the manager or coach on professional and many times people think of that like it happens to kids. Many parents move on to their time because they need a coach... We all have stories about the coach’s son. In a professional sense, you don’t have that because it plays out. You have to be good and you have to continue to play well and there’s no way in the world you can have any sort of special treatment. But I think everybody always relates to that experience that they had in Little League or early one..., or the coach did bat his son fourth or bat his son third and everyone else is thinking he shouldn’t be playing at all. . It’s a great joy to have your dad share a love that he might have had with you and there’s a lot of bonding that could take place in these experiences by putting parents and kids together on the athletic field. I’ve always enjoyed it.
If you never played baseball what would you be doing now?
I have an interest in architectural design that I’m starting to use now in designing some of our athletics facilities and our fields. I like the functionality of where to put the baseball fields. How to teach kids. And it really excites me. Maybe I’d be designing houses or office buildings or something. Fortunately, I love baseball and it was first. It took up all my time and it worked out.
How did you choose your uniform number, No. 8?
It was chosen for me. I didn’t choose it. Every team I ever played for when they were passing out uniforms, I didn’t think it was right, even though I had a favorite number. I wanted it to be my dad’s number at the time. He was  in the minor leagues. And I don’t think I ever wore 7 in the minor leagues. They would pass out uniforms and I didn’t think it was my place or right to actually say "I want that number." And when I got to the big leagues spring training camp, normally when you’re invited in spring training camp... you’ll see these players with really high numbers, No. 78 or No. 79, and usually the higher numbers means you don’t really have a chance to make the club. And so you’re assigned that, but then when I first came to the big league camp, for some reason, they gave me a single digit number and it was 8... And so I didn’t make the club in my first spring training, but when I got called back a player that year my name was on number 8. I was just happy to get a single digit number. Eight wasn’t my favorite number, but it became my favorite number.
What motivated you to become an author?
I guess when you become a baseball player and you’re playing sports — I never looked at myself as an author — but just like you learn how to write and shape stories in schoolwork, it gives you an opportunity to deliver a message to communicate and... there were so many lessons that I learned throughout my life in baseball, I wanted to communicate that message. There’s no greater way than to put it in the form of a book and let other people read it and internalize it. I think the motivation was just to communicate a message and that’s a real great vehicle to communicate.
Did having a sports writer help you do the story make it easier?
Yes. My great value is to continue to look at the realness of the baseball piece and the experience, and you tap into your own mind about when you went back and played for all those teams. But also watching my son play on teams and kind of seeing the issues in the current sense gives you a chance to shape it. But certainly someone that has great writing skills and has been doing this for a living, he’s able to bring that story and shape that story chapter by chapter and we worked together with that. But certainly it makes it a whole lot easier and a better product.
One of the parts I liked best in your book was when they made the X Play, when the man on first steals second with a trick and the man on third gets to steal home. Did you ever make any trick plays?
The trick plays are kind of funny and it does create a lot of excitement and it gives the kids a chance to say, "OK, I don’t know when we’re going to use this, but this play might be the difference in us winning a game." And by creating that play and practicing that play, you’re creating a sense of anticipation for future games. Sometimes a situation can present itself. When it does, everybody’s in on it and it really does bring the team together in many ways. And there are trick plays. Certainly in my big-league career, I stole home in trick play. My first stolen base in the big leagues was home and it was a left-handed pitcher on the mound and our trick play was when he... looked at you can see him, but when he took his head away he llooked at the guy on first... he couldn’t see anymore. As soon as he turned away, you would run and then the guy on first base would stumble and fall off. And now, in my view, my attention goes to him for a second and if it just goes for a couple of seconds then the guy could steal home. In the book, it’s more about being dramatic and selling it and falling down or doing something that creates that attention. But still the trick play is just to create the attention someplace else. And then you score a run. I love the fact that for a younger team everyone gets really excited about it, and the anticipation of when you’re going to do it, or is it going to work or not really, creates a unity. So I wanted to make sure that was told in the book. And it did turn out to be a big moment in the game.