Decade of drought has Ripken thirsty hTC

KEN ROSENTHAL

September 11, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It has been 10 years now. Ten years since Cal Ripken caught Garry Maddox's line drive for the final out of the 1983 World Series. Ten years since he jumped for joy on the Veterans Stadium infield, never realizing it might be the only such celebration of his career.

"I thought that was the norm," Ripken said last night. "I came up in '82, and we were in it until the last day of the season. Then in '83, my first full year, we won the Series.

"I was so young then. I thought it would happen each and every year."

Ripken was 23 then. His consecutive-games streak was in the high 200s. And the franchise was an absolute monster. Who didn't think it would go on forever? Heck, it already had, with the Orioles finishing below second only twice from '68 to '83.

For Ripken, it was a beginning; for the Orioles, it was an end. Ten years later, Ripken is a future Hall of Famer chasing one of the sport's most enduring records. But he has yet to return to the postseason, much less the World Series.

He isn't an Ernie Banks, or even a Don Mattingly, but Ripken has endured quite a drought, don't you think? It hasn't just been 10 years; it has been 10 often miserable years. Ninety-five losses in '87. One-hundred and seven in '88. Ninety-five more in '91.

"When you go through a total rebuilding situation, you never know if and when the team will return to being competitive," Ripken said.

"But that was still an early part of my career. You think you have a lot of time to weather a rebuilding process."

Actually, it happened faster than anyone expected: The Orioles are in contention for the third time in five years since their '88 nadir.

Ripken is 33 now, a husband and father of two. He isn't one to get excited. But he knows this is probably the Orioles' best chance since the magical '83 season.

This isn't '89, when the Orioles were overachievers who were lucky to contend. And it isn't '92, when they were beaten by a superior Toronto club. Now the Blue Jays are reeling, the New York Yankees are struggling, and the Orioles might steal this thing.

"It seems like we have a better opportunity," Ripken said. "The big difference this year is that we've had injuries at a lot of key positions, but we've still been able to compete and win. A lot of people have chipped in who weren't expected to do the job.

"Look at the injuries we've had. Almost every starter we put out there in spring training has been hurt. Every team has to deal with injuries, but we've still been able to compete. You feel better knowing we overcame all that and got into this position."

Think about it: The Orioles have lost every regular but Ripken (there's a shocker), Harold Reynolds and Mark McLemore at some point this season. They've also lost their No. 1 starter (Mike Mussina), their ace reliever (Gregg Olson) and their top left-hander (Arthur Rhodes).

Still, they entered last night's game a half-game out of first place, matching '89 for their best position in the past 10 years. Their 77-63 record was only one game behind last season, when their only major injury was to catcher Chris Hoiles.

Last year, though, was different. "Sometimes, you watch the playoffs and World Series, and in a short series, the best team doesn't always win," Ripken said. "But last year, Toronto was just very strong. In my opinion, they were the best team."

And now? "I don't know," Ripken said, launching into a detailed analysis of the Blue Jays' off-season changes, then concluding, "It doesn't seem like they're weaker in a lot of ways."

What did you expect from a milk spokesman, bulletin-board material?

Ripken admits one thing: He'd love to return to the postseason. "It's very special, getting the opportunity to play in the playoffs and World Series," he said. "Looking back, I probably didn't understand or appreciate what happened."

It was all such a blur that season. Ripken led the majors with 47 doubles, 121 runs scored and a club-record 211 hits. He batted .273 in nine postseason games, and was named American League MVP. It couldn't last forever. The game doesn't work that way.

That's why a return to the postseason would be especially gratifying. "I think so," Ripken said, "Just because it has been so long. You almost get used to watching the other teams on TV. After losing 107 games, after going 0-21, I think it would be a little more meaningful this time."

Just a little.

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