Ripken boos hurt, but so does isolation

Bill Tanton

June 03, 1993|By Bill Tanton

It's probably going to get ugly, starting tomorrow night when the Orioles return home to play Seattle.

Actually, the ugliness already has surfaced. Cal Ripken has been booed in recent games at Camden Yards, though not resoundingly. Not yet.

Ripken, the club's No. 1 hero, its perennial All-Star and Iron Man with a consecutive game streak of 1,787, is going to begin hearing the boos in earnest now. Especially with Glenn Davis gone to Rochester.

This Orioles season, which began with such high hopes, already is being written off by many. Naturally, Ripken is now the No. 1 target of the fans' frustration.

Even after yesterday's 5-2 win in Oakland and 5-5 road trip, the club is eight games under .500. The Orioles may have to battle to escape a last-place finish.

Ripken, meanwhile, has been struggling to keep his batting average above .200. That will look embarrassing when he steps to the plate in the All-Star Game here July 13.

And he will be selected. Last year Cal was the leading vote-getter among all major leaguers with 2,699,773. The public, which picks the team, is slow to abandon long-established favorites.

I love the Ripkens: Cal, his father Cal Sr., his brother Bill. I think Vi, the mom, is terrific. A lot of people feel that way, which is why it's painful to hear Cal booed.

Cal Sr. was crucified for one mistake coaching third last September. His replacement, Mike Ferraro, has made 10 such mistakes already. Cal Sr. never wound up with three runners on third base.

Billy Ripken can't hit. We all know that. But he's a great second baseman, especially joined by Cal at short. What I miss about Bill is the life he injects with his spirited play.

What we've seen this year is a lifeless, leaderless team that manager Johnny Oates has not been able to motivate. The club misses Bill Ripken, just as it misses a gamer like Joe Orsulak.

I was told when the club came north from spring training that Cal was in a funk over the firing of his brother and father. You can't blame him for that.

For the second straight year, Cal Jr. is the center of controversy. Last year it was over the signing of his contract, which was finalized in August. This year it's his slump and his consecutive game streak.

Cal is a nice person but a basically shy one who is uncomfortable in the eye of a two-year storm. That's why he stays away from the team hotel on the road and why he rides limos instead of the team bus.

That's a bad mistake on Cal's part. The $6-million-a-year man has the money to stay anywhere, but that's not the issue.

The issue is that isolating himself detracts from team closeness. It sets the club's most important player apart from the rest. The Orioles don't need one more thing pulling them apart.

"It's ridiculous," says Frank Sliwka, who runs the annual Tops in Sports banquet here and once played minor-league baseball.

Like me, Sliwka likes the Ripkens. He can't go with Cal on this one, though.

"Other stars put up with the kids with their autograph books," Sliwka says. "It's part of baseball.

"If ever a player had reason to duck the pressure it was Roger Maris when he was going after Babe Ruth's home run record in 1961. Roger hated it. His hair was falling out.

"But he stayed in the team hotel. He rode the Yankee team bus. I saw him do it."

Sliwka also saw Maris, at the height of that pressure, visit Sliwka's terminally ill son at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The boy died of leukemia. No wonder Sliwka can't accept Cal Ripken's going his own way.

As for the streak, it has taken Cal 10 years to get this far. It will take two more for him to match Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130.

In the final month of Gehrig's streak, he was a sick man, but his manager, Joe McCarthy, would not bench him.

"Joe would let me go until the cows came home," Gehrig said at the time. "He's that considerate of my feelings."

Said McCarthy: "If Lou can't play, he'll have to take himself out of the lineup. I won't do it."

Gehrig, dying with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known since then as Lou Gehrig's disease, took himself out on May 2, 1939. He died two years later, two weeks shy of his 38th birthday.

Oates will afford Ripken the same consideration. Cal will have to take himself out, if he is to be taken out at all.

There's no need to do that now. The club has no other shortstop close to Ripken's level, despite Cal's three errors in the past two games. Cal says a day off wouldn't help anyway.

If Ripken's average drops into the .180s and stays there, I think he'll bench himself. At his core, he's still too much of a professional and a team man to put a personal goal ahead of the club's success.

And if he begins to produce, no one will be complaining about the streak anyway. No one mentioned it in Cal's career year of 1991.

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