Orioles' title win offers yet another lesson in life

This Just In...

September 26, 1997|By DAN RODRICKS

TORONTO - One good thing about the Orioles winning their division title away from home and here in particular - it provides a Baltimore sports fan with a remedial lesson in the ironic, fragile nature of this thing called life. (OK, that's a bit much. I know. But, look, on the way to SkyDome, I witnessed the breathtaking spectacle of huge Chinook salmon swimming out of Lake Ontario up a river to spawn and die. So right now I'm prone to see life lessons where others see only baseball and fish. Please understand.)

Longtime Orioles fans will know the life lesson to which I refer. It was delivered between the golden autumn of 1983, when Cal got his World Series ring, and the cruel spring of 1988, when the

Orioles made international news with an 0-and-21 start. It was an ugly era - a dynasty tottering, dying - and we shouldn't go there anymore. Except that I saw the salmon coming up the Credit River in Mississauga, just outside Toronto, and that's the kind of experience that will make a Big Picture Guy out of you. I think it's good now and then - not always, of course, because people will think you're nuts - to gaze into the bottom of a beverage glass for a broader perspective. Don't you agree?

I mean, look at the Blue Jays! Pathetic is their name. And yet, they have pennants of recent vintage.

They hang above the largest video screen in North America - the Sony JumboTron in center field of SkyDome. (Amazing thing that. A ballplayer's head appears the size of a small province on it, and when the player is sweaty and unshaven his face looks like a grainy thug shot from an Oliver Stone film. It makes Roger Clemens look like Lee Harvey Oswald.) The pennants hang high - three division titles and two world championships, in 1992 and 1993.

Now look: Wednesday night, when the Orioles got to smoke Honduran cigars and hose each other down with cheap champagne, where were the Blue Jays? Their manager had been fired two hours before the game and a couple of months after

the team again had settled into the dank cellar of the American League East. The general manager appeared to have dressed (( for a funeral to announce Cito Gaston's discharge.

And SkyDome doesn't work without a winner. It just isn't the rocking, electric sports Cinerama I experienced the first time here, in 1989, during the last weekend of a mystical divisional race and the advent of the Blue Jays' successful run. The place has an eerie echo when attendance is lousy, which is often now. The fans who actually come out at the meaningless end of another loser season sit silently - as if at a wake, but without the emotion. Their thoughts must drift to the exhibition NHL season.

That silence is distinctive. I've heard it before. I recall it from the meaningless ends of the Awful Orioles years. Amazing. Only four seasons ago the Jays were at the top of the world.

As Ralph Kramden used to say: "Eeeaasssyyy come, eeeaaasssyyy go."

As Robert Frost put it: "Nothing gold can stay."

As a corny old boss of mine put it: "Son, you've got to learn: Life is a series of peaks and valleys."

Which is what still makes Cal Ripken an interesting story. The other night against the Blue Jays, he raised his bat to his shoulder and released a heavy sigh. It's been a long season, with peaks and valleys, in a long career. You get a little closer to things, here at the end of a first-place-wire-to-wire season, and you find his work record all the more remarkable.

Ripken caught the final out of the game that clinched the divisional title. It was a line drive. It reminded me of the final out of the 1983 World Series, except that Ripken was at shortstop that night in deathly silent Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. In Baltimore, a town with a great baseball legacy, that was a long time ago - 14 years - and you couldn't help but think of it the other night. The magic has been drifting back, piece by piece, free agent by free agent, year by year, and it might finally be back with us again.

It's starting to look and smell that way. The Orioles clubhouse had the sinus-singeing stench of Cook's American and President Canadian champagne. Ripken smoked a cigar and told reporters all the smart, pleasing, familiar things - "We had high hopes and great expectations" - you like to hear a veteran say on such occasions.

Lenny Webster, the catcher, said he was happy to have contributed in an important way to a team that desperately needed a replacement catcher. Brady Anderson hugged Armando Benitez who, for some reason, stayed out of the clubhouse, aloof from teammates, till the celebration waned.

Ray Miller, the pitching coach, walked around in a wet T-shirt bearing the words, "Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds." I hadn't seen him walk around a noisy locker room, sopped in champagne, hugging players, since 1983. It's a great thing to behold again.

Life cycle

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