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Breaking In With Cal Ripken, Orioles Trainer Richie Bancells An Iron Man In His Own Right

October 16, 2017
They arrived within days of each other in Bluefield, W. Va., the trainer and the infielder, starting careers that took different paths but traveled in the same direction. It was June 1978 and newly married Richie Bancells was starting his first season as an athletic trainer, arriving on the scene in time to hand Cal Ripken Jr. his first professional uniform.

Only in their wildest imaginations could either have predicted where those careers were headed, but almost 40 years later the similarity between the two is as undeniable as it is incredible. On his way to the Hall of Fame, Ripken would set an all-time record by playing in 2,632 consecutive games (3,001 total). 

Quietly by comparison, Bancells launched a 34-year career, the last 30 as only the third (and longest-running) head athletic trainer in Orioles history (Eddie Weidner, 1954-1967, and Ralph Salvon, 1968-1987, preceded him). Bancells' tenure covers more than 5,500 regular-season games, which means that even with a few absences, Bancells has almost certainly seen more Orioles games than anyone in the organization's history. 

(In the interest of full disclosure and personal interest, I have been part of the discussion in the past about seeing the most O's games. It was a suggestion I was happy to accept. I have also known Richie since his first day on the job and told him this summer I thought there was a new leader in the house. I did some homework, and my approximation is that I've seen about 5,400 games, dating to the first year, 1954, which by my count is second -- but still counting.)

Bancells, who will turn 62 in November, announced his retirement Oct. 1, the last day of the 2017 season -- and five days shy of the 16th anniversary of Ripken's last game. 

"Even as you say that, it's hard to believe it's been that long -- and that I've been here that much longer than he was," Bancells said a few days after his retirement became official.

Bancells and Ripken, as it turned out, each played prominent roles in the career of the other. Bancells was on call through most of Ripken's record-setting streak -- and Ripken was instrumental when Bancells introduced some then-controversial weight training programs.

Before earning his degree from Miami's Biscayne College (now St. Thomas University), which was on the same grounds as the Orioles' minor league complex, Bancells served as an assistant during spring training in 1977 and 1978. After his trial run, he interviewed with the late Clyde Kluttz, former director of the O's minor league operations, for a job in the organization, not really knowing when, or where, it might happen.

"When I came back for a second interview, Clyde told me I had the job and to report to Bluefield in June -- and I had to tell him I was getting married June 10," Bancells said. "He told me, ‘That's OK, you have two days to get to Bluefield.'" So we got married in the Chicago area [Evanston, Ill.], and then spent two days driving to Bluefield. After all these years, I still owe Carol a honeymoon."

After being drafted by the Orioles in the second round, Ripken signed his contract (June 13) the day after Bancells had reported, and within days their professional and personal friendship was on a fast track. 

"I stayed in Bluefield for a second year in 1979," he said, "so Cal jumped me when he went to [Class-A] Miami, then I got ahead of him and went to [Triple-A] Rochester [where he stayed four years] and he went to [Double-A] Charlotte -- but Cal beat me to the big leagues [in 1981]."

As president of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Association from 2007-2013 and a member of MLB's Medical Advisory Committee, Bancells has been involved in many training innovations during the years. He has long been a proponent for proper nutrition in the clubhouse, where sandwiches and fast food have given way to dietary programs run by professional staffs, and also proper strength and conditioning programs.

In that role, he introduced weights to the Orioles' training regime for the first time -- and credits Ripken for helping advance the program. 

"Cal was the first athlete I knew who had an interest in the body," Bancells said. "He would quiz me about a lot of things -- we had a lot of discussions."

It turned out that support helped on a couple of fronts. He doesn't recall the year, only that it was the early 1980s, but Bancells remembers the reception the first time he walked into the Orioles' locker room with a set of weights he figured could help players with shoulder problems. "It was as though I was bringing poison into the clubhouse," he said, now able to laugh at the memory. He was, in effect, also the Orioles' first strength and conditioning coach, a position rare in those days but now routine at every level of baseball.

Anyone who was around the Orioles in those days knows that the biggest opponent of weights in the clubhouse was none other than Cal Ripken Sr. 

"I don't know if [Cal Jr. and Cal Sr.] ever talked about it, I never asked," Bancells said, "but it helped that Cal Jr. was a believer. There was a lot of skepticism -- but Ralph [Salvon] was in favor, and I think the fact that I had a young icon like Cal Jr. helped. I think it would've happened eventually, but it made it a lot easier."

Despite their differences of opinion when it came to weights, Bancells and Cal Sr. had a unique relationship. 

"He really took me under his wing," Bancells said. "He treated me like his son -- maybe sometimes like a son who was misbehaving. He didn't like the misbehaving part (weights), but he was great with me."

When Bancells came aboard as Salvon's assistant in 1984, the Orioles' training room at Memorial Stadium was roughly the size of what now serves as the staff's office at Camden Yards. But as barren as it was, that room was typical throughout the game. 

"I remember my first road trip was to Cleveland and Detroit [which had the smallest visitors' locker rooms in baseball] and thinking, ‘This is the big leagues?'" Bancells said.

But times have changed, and just like strategies, so have training and treatment methods. 

"It's better to stay in shape year around than try to get in shape in spring training -- Cal Jr. was one of the first to buy into that," said Bancells, noting that it's now a 24/7 job almost 12 months a year. 

There would also seem to be some pressure of doing what's best for both the player and the club, but as Bancells said to MASN's Gary Thorne in a recent interview: "I always tell the player that whatever I'm telling him, I'm telling management, so everybody's getting the same information."

The demands of the job, coupled with the travel and his desire to enjoy more time with Carol, their three children and seven grand children, prompted Bancells to retire. When he asked to speak to manager Buck Showalter the morning before the last game, it wasn't because he'd made a sudden overnight decision.

"I was about 80 percent sure when we went to spring training," he said, "and when Carol had to have surgery this year (she's doing fine now) that made it 100 percent. But I didn't know how to handle it -- there's no blueprint for something like this. I didn't want to say anything in April because I didn't want players wondering about me because I wasn't going to be back. 

"I think a few guys -- Darren [O'Day], J.J. [Hardy], Tilly (Chris Tillman) had an idea, and I think Buck did, too. When I went in to talk to him I said, ‘I think you know why I'm here,' and he asked me, ‘Are you sure?' and when I told him I was, it got a little emotional."

Fittingly, Bancells asked Showalter if he could address the team because he's always felt the relationship with the players was the best part of the job. 

"Buck said some nice things, and I got to tell [the players] that I was leaving. I do think some of them were shocked," Bancells said later.

Throughout Bancells' career, there were plenty of highlights -- and some lowlights. It would be hard for anybody to have a tougher first year than Bancells. His first year as the club's head athletic trainer was 1988 -- which started with the Orioles losing 21 straight games and ending with a 54-107 record. The next year was the "Why Not?" season, so that was a quick intro to the roller-coaster ride ahead.

Bancells has only missed a half-dozen games during his career, for the weddings of his children ("we got lucky with the births," he said) and this year while Carol was recovering from her surgery. Throw in spring training and postseason games and the total climbs to more than 6,000 -- more than enough memories or seventh-inning stretches to last a lifetime.

If you push him, and it takes some prodding, Bancells will admit to a personal highlight. 

"It would have to be Cooperstown, [N.Y.], 2007, when Cal mentioned me in his [Hall of Fame] acceptance speech," he said. "The funny thing is I wasn't going to go because I didn't think I should be away the whole weekend, but Cal had invited me and my family, and I had people telling me, ‘You have to go. ... You have to do this.' When he mentioned my name, I wasn't even sure what he said. It was surreal and emotional."

From Bluefield to Cooperstown, Richie's ride with Ripken is the journey of a lifetime, but there are many more than two characters in this play. The memories have been and continue to be mostly about the relationships.

"Eddie [Murray] called me [the day after my retirement was announced]," Bancells said. "Those are the kind of things that mean the most to me. I can't believe the number [of former players] who call -- only now sometimes they want to talk about hip or knee replacements, stuff like that, or about their kids. When they had the 25-year reunion and brought back the first team to play in Camden Yards ... seeing all those guys, just sitting and talking it was great. Those are the kind of memories that mean the most -- and the ones I'll take from this job."

As for any future reunions, they will only get better for Bancells. After 34 years with the Orioles and 41 seasons in the organization, he can be a full participant -- the one with the longest tenure, the one with the most, and best, stories to tell. 

Enjoy, my friend. 

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Issue 238: October 2017