- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The New York Yankees may be the most hated franchise in baseball, but they do a lot of things right. One of those things is to tap into the club’s rich tradition every spring.

It is no coincidence the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa is called Legends Field. It is not unusual to see Yogi Berra or Whitey Ford — pinstriped royalty — talking to players, sharing the history of the franchise.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have done the same, although Sandy Koufax stayed away from Vero Beach when Fox owned the team.

Even cynical million-dollar ballplayers are impressed by royalty, and with rosters changing each year, it is a way to keep a connection to the past.

The Baltimore Orioles would be wise to do the same. It has been a while since they have had any past worth connecting to, but having former Orioles greats in camp has value on the field for the players and off the field for public relations.

The subject came up when former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, who led the Orioles to six American League East titles, four AL pennants and one World Series championship, visited camp recently.

“How can you not want to talk to Earl about baseball?” said manager Lee Mazzilli, a former coach for the Yankees who recognizes the value of tradition.

There is no lack of Orioles tradition in Fort Lauderdale. Rick Dempsey, Andy Etchebarren, Terry Crowley, Elrod Hendricks, Scott McGregor — all have World Series rings from their days as players. But they are the staff, major or minor league coaches and managers, and are perceived differently by young players. There is Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Orioles broadcaster who is always willing to share his knowledge with young players.

But the absence of the two biggest Orioles is obvious. Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken should be here. They are Whitey and Yogi for the Orioles, the top tier of franchise royalty, the most recognizable names and faces in club history.

It was never more obvious than when the Orioles’ current big three — Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro — reported to camp. All three invoked Ripken’s name when they got to Fort Lauderdale. Palmeiro played with Ripken for five years.

“I have learned from some great players like Cal Ripken,” said Palmeiro, who played with Ripken for five years during Raffy’s first tour with the team.

Said Lopez: “If you liked baseball, you know that Cal Ripken was the big-time player with the Orioles.”

Tejada couldn’t finish a sentence without mentioning Ripken. “I will be on the same team that Cal Ripken played on, and that is very important,” he said. “I will be walking on the same infield that Cal Ripken did, and that will help make me do something for this team. This is my dream come true to be on the same team that Cal Ripken played on. … I was a Cal Ripken fan from the time I started playing baseball as a young boy. My favorite player was Alfredo Griffin. Cal Ripken was fun to watch. He hit home runs, and you never saw him make too many errors.”

It should be a no-brainer for both Robinson and Ripken to be here, but it is more complicated than having them show up. Robinson, who is now working with Peter Kirk on bringing minor league baseball to York and Lancaster in southeastern Pennsylvania, has not been close to the franchise under Peter Angelos’ ownership. And there is an underlying tension between Ripken and the current Orioles front office.

Club vice president Mike Flanagan said the club would welcome Robinson and Ripken to camp.

“We would like to see it,” Flanagan said. “We have talked to Brooksie about doing stuff like that with us. His schedule is very busy, but we have said that any time he wants to come in, he is more than welcome and we would love to have him. The same goes for Cal, but a lot of times there are time constraints, certainly with Cal, and they don’t have that much time to give you. But any time that would happen, they would be welcome.”

There should be more than just some sort of standing invitation. Someone from the organization needs to reach out and make this happen. It’s not urgent. But it is right, and it is smart.

Robinson is traveling on business and could not be reached for comment. But Ripken said he would welcome the opportunity, but he would need to hear more details.

“I’m open to that,” he said. “I would have to hear what they would have in mind. It’s hard to judge anything until we had that conversation, but I would be amenable to listen to see what they had in mind.”

Mazzilli indicated the Orioles are working on a program to bring some former Orioles to camp but refused to be specific.

“We have talked about [tapping into the tradition],” he said. “That is what we are trying to do. We have talked about other players coming back down here to get that tradition down here. As soon as I was here, I said this is something we have to consider.”

In baseball, having a tradition worth preserving is rare. The Orioles have such a tradition. It should be more than an afterthought, or else one day it will be a distant memory with frayed connections.

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