- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Twenty-four years ago yesterday, the Baltimore Orioles dropped a wild 11-10 affair to the Toronto Blue Jays in the second game of a doubleheader at Memorial Stadium. The loss dropped the Orioles’ record to 22-23 in what looked like a disappointing final year for manager Earl Weaver, who had announced his retirement at season’s end.

At the time, the game appeared unremarkable. Leading 10-9 after seven innings, the Orioles lost when Toronto scored single runs in the eighth and ninth off relievers Tippy Martinez and Tim Stoddard.

Actually, the crowd of 21,241 was witnessing a semi-historical event: the last Orioles game for 16 years, four months and 23 days in which Cal Ripken Jr. would not play. Instead of Junior, as he was known then, the Orioles used utility man Floyd Rayford at third base.

Ripken’s incredible run of 2,632 games, known throughout baseball simply as The Streak, featured two extremely well-known nights at Camden Yards. The second of these came on Sept.20, 1998, when the 38-year-old walked into manager Ray Miller’s office a half-hour before game time and asked — could this be possible? — for the night off.

The first and most memorable occasion was, of course, on Sept.6, 1995, when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s supposedly unbreakable record of 2,130 games from 1925 to 1939. When the game became official in the middle of the fifth inning and the number “1” descended over the “0” on the giant banner decorating the B&O; Warehouse beyond the right-field wall, appropriate hysteria ensued. Fireworks erupted, smoke descended, music blared and Cal took a victory lap around the playing field never to be forgotten by those in attendance.

At The Streak’s beginning, however, very few people noticed. On Sunday afternoon, May30, Weaver scrawled “Ripken 3B” on the lineup card that he handed to home plate umpire Vic Voltaggio. The 6-foot-4 infielder, only 22 and in his first full major league season, was batting eighth, just ahead of light-hitting shortstop Lenn Sakata.

If this had been a movie, Ripken might have hit for the cycle and won the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth. Instead, he went hitless in two official at-bats against Toronto starter Jim Gott as the Orioles lost again to Bobby Cox’s Blue Jays 6-0 before 21,642 at Memorial.

But things were about to get better. Much better. With Ripken playing third base and ultimately shortstop for every inning, the Orioles went 72-44 the rest of the way and stayed in the American League East race until losing to the champion Milwaukee Brewers on the last day of the season.

Cal lived up to every advance notice, and then some, by hitting .264 with 28 home runs and 93 RBI to become AL rookie of the year, The following season, with Joe Altobelli replacing Weaver, Ripken batted .318 to claim the first of his two MVP Awards as the Orioles won the division, the ALCS and their last World Series for at least 23 years.

During Weaver’s two terms as Orioles manager (1968-82 and 1985-86), his image was that of an impatient tyrant whose players cordially resented him. But his faith in the son and namesake of Earl’s third-base coach surely played a part in young Ripken’s rapid development.

Called up from Class AAA Rochester at the end of 1981, Ripken batted an unsnappy .128 in 23 games. He hit well in spring training the following spring, and was 3-for-5 with a home run on Opening Day. But then he went into a 4-for-55 swoon that dropped his average to .117 on May 1.

Your move, Earl. How about benching the kid and playing Bobby Bonner, a much more highly rated prospect after the Orioles drafted both (Ripken in the second round) in 1978.

Forget it.

“As long as I’m manager, that kid’s name is going to be in the lineup,” Weaver said of Ripken. On most days anyway. A 102-degree temperature put Ripken on the bench for the second game of an April 17 doubleheader. On May 2, he missed another game after being beaned by Mike Moore of the Seattle Mariners. But then, after a pep talk from California Angels slugger Reggie Jackson, Ripken started hitting. For the month of May, he batted .316.

During Ripken’s slow start, the usually acerbic Weaver called him into his office several times to say, “Don’t worry about it — you’re my shortstop.” After all, the Orioles had traded reliable veteran Doug DeCinces in the offseason to make room for Junior.

“You have to recognize talent,” Weaver said years later. “It wasn’t hard to know that Cal was talented, not hard at all.”

Ripken quickly became a local hero to match Brooks Robinson and Johnny Unitas, his predecessors as Charm City icons. He played hard all the time, lived a clean life off the field, signed autographs and — unlike fellow star Eddie Murray — even befriended the media.

One day, posing for pictures with the son of a Miami Herald sportswriter in South Florida’s sunny spring of 1984, Ripken discovered it was the boy’s seventh birthday. When he finally shook hands and left, the celebrant called after him: “Mr. Ripken, you forgot your bat.”

Ripken turned and smiled. “That’s your bat now, Patrick,” he said. “Happy birthday.”

Patrick never forgot that. Neither have I.

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