Sharing the Secret to Longevity in Major League Baseball
Cal Ripken Jr.’s athletic trainer speaks of three decades with the Baltimore Orioles and his spiritual awakening.
BALTIMORE — Many people know about Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-breaking endurance, but few know about one of the men who helped the modern-day Iron Man break Major League Baseball’s consecutive-games-played record.
Athletic trainer Richie Bancells was hired by the Orioles on the same day the team drafted Ripken in 1978. While Ripken would make the majors before Bancells, they reunited in 1984 and worked together for the remainder of Ripken’s career, which ended in 2001.
Bancells enjoyed his time with baseball’s Iron Man, but a couple of years later, he experienced serious anxiety that led to a hospital visit and a re-prioritization of his life. He started to see what could be set aside and what was most important, which led him back into the Catholic Church with a renewed perspective.
Bancells, a Key West, Fla., native and father of three, spoke of his 30 years in the major leagues, including this year’s 96-66 Orioles squad, which currently trails the Kansas City Royals in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, two games to none.
What do you think of your postseason chances this year?
We got to the playoffs in 2012, but this year has been extraordinary. There’s a saying that winning solves a lot of problems, and we’ve won a lot this year, which has solved a lot of our problems. We’ve had our share of injuries, but we’ve come from behind and won many games by one run.
It’s interesting to see how the team hasn’t been firing on all cylinders during the season, yet we’ve still come together and managed to win. Some of our best players — Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, for instance — are on the disabled list, but here we are in the playoffs. We’re a very resilient team, and it will be fun to see how far we can go.
I do know that, while it’s great to be in the playoffs, we are aware that the goal is more than just to be here. We want to win the World Series. ... Where we are now is comparable to a fishing analogy I use: We’ve got a tug on the line, but the fish is not in the boat yet.
This is your 30th year as an athletic trainer in the major leagues. One of the big pluses of that time must have been working with Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.
Working with Cal was definitely a great experience, and it started even before the majors. The exact day I was hired by the Orioles in 1978 was the day he was drafted out of high school. He was a homesick kid, and I was finishing graduate school, when we were both sent to rookie ball with the Bluefield Orioles in the Appalachian League. I got to AAA before Cal, but he got to the majors before I did. I joined him in 1984, and things went well from there.
Cal had an unusual durability about him. He was fit, not only from a physical point of view, but from a mental one as well. He believed he came to the park every day to play ball. It was that simple. Distractions meant nothing; he was a baseball player, period. That mindset came from his father, who had a great work ethic. Cal took that work ethic and used it to break the consecutive-games-played streak in 1995, with 2,131 games, which then ended at 2,632 in 1998.
Before he approached the 2,131 mark, the streak started becoming a topic of discussion. People were talking about him possibly breaking Lou Gehrig’s record, but Cal didn’t understand what the big deal was. I was taping his ankle one day, and he said to me, “You go to work every day, don’t you?” He went to work every day, and that was that.
There are obvious things an athletic trainer does, but what are some of the things people wouldn’t know about your job?
Athletic trainers work to prevent, treat and rehabilitate injuries. That’s just a normal part of the job, but you end up wearing a lot of different hats in this position, such as counselor and friend.
Players sometimes look to the training room to escape the chaos of the locker room, so they don’t even need to have a specific physical concern to see me. The training room becomes a place of peace and quiet — just a casual location to hang out. Sometimes players just want to discuss things, rather then get something fixed. In this lounge-like environment, I’ve learned when to offer advice and when to listen.
You’ve also learned to listen to God’s word and read it as well, right?
Yes, that’s something that has taken many years, but it is finally a regular part of my life. In one way, God’s word has always been there, because I grew up Catholic. We always went to Mass on Sundays and First Fridays, I went to Catholic grade school and high school, and my whole life seemed to revolve around the Church.
However, while I knew the rules, I didn’t quite get the why of Catholicism. That led me to drift away from the Church in my 20s, because my career seemed so much more important to me.
Looking back, the best way to say it was that my priorities were screwed up. What was supposed to be on the top (my standing with God) was at a much lower level. Work ruled me.
How did you get your priorities straight?
Well, it took a trip to the hospital for that to happen. It was around 2003, and I was experiencing a lot of stress. It seemed like there we so many obligations for me to do, and I just couldn’t take them all. There was so much anxiety; my heart would race, and I would have panic attacks.
Over the course of the season, I became exhausted and ended up checking into a hospital while the team was playing the Tigers in Detroit. Staying there for a few days was an opportunity for me to ask myself what was really important in life. I realized that there were things I didn’t have to do, that I could say No. This realization brought a lot of relief. I also realized that being a Catholic is not primarily a matter of rules; it’s a matter of a relationship.
The Church isn’t an end in itself; it’s the means through which we meet the real, living, loving Person of Jesus Christ. The Church — in all its various ways — brings Jesus to us. We see that in the sacraments and also in things that call to mind the life of Christ, such as crucifixes, stained-glass windows, statues, Stations of the Cross and sacred music. These are means to an end, and the end is union with Christ.
Today, I feel a very high level of comfort in the Church. It’s where I belong, and it’s a constant reminder of what is most important in life. Now, I don’t see Catholicism as something that is only done from 9 to 10 on Sunday; it’s something that is supposed to color everything you do during the entire week.
One of the best ways to describe the mindset is to ask yourself what you’d like people to say about you after you’ve died. What can honestly be said about the man you were? What sayings or descriptions can be placed, in all truth, on your headstone? It was according to that line of questioning that I started to rearrange my life.
How did the people around you respond to your change?
Some people liked it, and some didn’t, but the ones I respected were the only ones whose opinion mattered to me. Now, I surround myself with like-minded people who have a faith-based perspective on life, so there’s not much resistance to what I’m doing, and, in fact, there’s a lot of encouragement.
Sometimes when people hear I’m getting back from being at Mass, they ask why I’d want to be a Catholic. They bring up sins of individual Catholics, but those don’t bother me at all. Those are what specific people have chosen to do, not what we are taught to do by the Church. You don’t judge a church based on people who have not followed its teachings.
Plus, where are you going to find a church in which no one sins and everyone is completely perfect? That’s only going to be in heaven. I focus on the positives here and find tremendous consolation from being part of the mystical body of Christ. I love the Mass, and I love to go over the readings for every day, even on those days I’m not at Mass. God’s word directs my day.
There are so many great Bible passages, but my favorite might be Proverbs 3:5-6, where it says to trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own intelligence. Then it says to be always mindful of the Lord, and he will make straight your paths.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
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