Cal Ripken practices a small superstition, requiring his teammates to make direct eye contact with him every time congratulations are exchanged. He may look like Rasputin when he does it, but superstitions must be honored.
Especially when a team is streaking, as the Orioles are. After Ripken hit one of three Orioles homers and they beat Seattle, 10-5, last night, Manny Alexander offered Ripken a handshake and playfully looked away. Ripken pulled him back and stared him down until Alexander stared back. As Crash Davis would say: Respect the streak.
It has been a long time since the Orioles' future looked this good. April 17, to be exact, when their 11-2 record was the best in baseball and a postseason berth appeared to be a foregone conclusion. But the four-month series of daily soap operas seems to have ended and they're playing well, and in some respects, the Orioles have come full circle.
They're nine games over .500 and playing the best baseball in the American League, winning 16 of their past 22. They stand a half-game behind Chicago in the wild-card race and five games behind the Yankees in the AL East race, having made up seven games on New York in little more than three weeks.
Orioles fans are taking note. A crowd of 47,198 rose and fell and rose again at Camden Yards again, cheering as the Orioles took an early 5-1 lead, gasping as they gave it away, and screaming again after the Orioles regained the lead on homers by Ripken (No. 21) and Bobby Bonilla (No. 18).
Should the Orioles win today and complete a three-game sweep of Seattle, they will be 10 games over .500 for the first time all year -- and could move ahead of the White Sox in the wild-card race. How different, speaking of what-ifs instead of what-should-have-beens.
"In '89, we played pretty well down the stretch, took it down to the last three games," Ripken said. "In the other years, we had an opportunity but we haven't taken advantage of it. This is one of those opportunities where September can be a whole lot more fun and the only way it's more fun is if you're winning."
The Orioles are having loads of fun now, even in these wild and crazy games with Seattle. The Orioles and Mariners should be televised on ESPN2, rather than ESPN, and they should be intertwined somehow with paragliding, bungee-jumping and skateboarding. Orioles vs. Mariners: Extreme Baseball. Lots of runs, lots of hits, never a lack of action. Never.
Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who is to Generation X what Cal Ripken is to the baby Baby Boomers, homered in the first inning, becoming only the fifth shortstop to hit 30 homers in a season. The Orioles came back with two runs in the bottom of the inning after Seattle starter Sterling Hitchcock dropped a throw as he covered first.
The Orioles added three runs, two on a homer by Chris Hoiles, and led 5-1. But right-hander Scott Erickson gave up a couple of cheap hits and, rattled, threw a terrible two-strike pitch to Rodriguez, who blasted a game-tying three-run homer.
That four-run lead? Gone. Goodbye.
Ripken led off the bottom of the fifth inning for the Orioles. Before the game, Ripken had taken extra time to hit off a tee in the indoor batting cage underneath the stands. Practicing in this way, Ripken said, gives him time to think alone and concentrate on hitting. Or on beating the Mariners, something Ripken does very well.
Hitchcock threw him a hanging breaking ball, and Ripken launched it over the left-field wall, his 21st homer of the year and his sixth against the Mariners this year. All told, Ripken is 16-for-30 against Seattle in 1996. "The home run was the last thing on my mind," Ripken said. "I just wanted to get on base and battle in the count, and it happened to work out that way."
As Ripken trotted past shortstop, Rodriguez watched. "I think the master is showing the pupil he's got a lot left in him," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said later.
Hitchcock threw inside to the subsequent hitter, Rafael Palmeiro, prompting a warning from plate umpire Tim Tschida against any beanballs. Between the emotional wake of Ripken's homer, the inside pitches to Palmeiro and the spectacle of 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson -- the possessor of the ultimate brushback pitch -- warming up in the Seattle bullpen, Camden Yards was thick with feeling.
Johnson eventually relieved Hitchcock and shut down the Orioles in the fifth and sixth, but Ripken reached on a ground single leading off the seventh. Palmeiro pulled a grounder to first baseman Paul Sorrento, who fielded the ball and turned to throw to second in an attempt to start a double play. But Sorrento's hTC throw hit Ripken in the back and bounced away, and the Orioles had runners at first and second and nobody out.
Bonilla then blistered a fastball over the left-center field wall, watching the ball for an instant in his follow-through before jogging around the bases, effectively finishing the Mariners.
Ripken waited for Bonilla at home and returned to the dugout, and as he always does after something good happens, Ripken stared down his teammates.
Respect the streak.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Oriole Park
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Jamie Moyer (9-2, 4.08) vs. Orioles' Rocky Coppinger (7-4, 4.63)
Tickets: 2,000 remain
The Murray watch
The Orioles' Eddie Murray is two home runs short of 500 for his career. Here's a look at his at-bats last night:
1st inning: Vs. Hitchcock. Singled to left, driving in one run.
4th inning: Vs. Hitchcock. Flied out to left.
5th inning: Vs. Johnson. Struck out swinging.
7th inning: Vs. Johnson. Grounded out to third.
Pub Date: 8/22/96