Young Orioles glad to be aboard for last part of Ripken ride

Exposure to O's great is learning, thrilling part of a down season

October 07, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

His inside knowledge of American League batters aided Josh Towers. Because it includes No. 8, Larry Bigbie will always cherish the lineup card from the game in which he got his first major-league hit. Brian Roberts enjoyed the thrill of playing next to the man who revolutionized his position. Jerry Hairston is that rarest of birds, an Oriole who advised the Iron Man.

The youngest Orioles were preparing for preschool when Cal Ripken made his major-league debut in 1981. They appreciate the historical significance of Ripken's career and the way his farewell tour brightened an otherwise dismal year.

Hairston, the 25-year-old second baseman who completed his first full season in the major leagues this year, shares a bond with Ripken. Hairston is a third-generation major-leaguer, and Ripken was taught the game by his late father, who managed and coached in the Orioles' organization for 30-plus years. Hairston's father introduced him to Ripken in 1983, when the latter's Orioles beat the former's White Sox in the American League Championship Series.

Hairston skipped study hall at Southern Illinois University to watch the 1995 telecast of Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games played, and isn't ashamed to say he cried. He has mimicked Ripken's rituals of preparation, so imagine the emotion he felt when Ripken sought him out.

"He asked me some questions about his son, Ryan," Hairston said. "He wanted to know how my father handled me. My father wasn't the player Cal Ripken was, and his son is going to have a lot more pressure on him than I did. My father just wanted to make sure that I loved the game of baseball. With our family backgrounds, we understand that there are going to be ups and downs in a career."

Roberts was 3 when Ripken first played for the Orioles. At 5 feet 9, he's from the Ozzie Smith mold of shortstops, not the Cal Ripken model that paved the way for Alex Rodriguez.

"I got called up on June 14, and it was exciting to be in the lineup," Roberts said. "To see him beside me, but to also know that I was playing the position he played for so long in an Orioles uniform, I'll never forget that. He was one of the first guys I met here when I signed with the Orioles, in '99. That was a good story to take home."

The Orioles entered last night's game 34 games below .500, and Ripken lessened the pain of that plight.

"A lot of teams that far below .500 are ready to go home," Roberts said. "Sure, we're ready for a bad season to end, but you don't want to see him play his last game."

In a region awash in Ripken paraphernalia, Bigbie has a more personal memento.

"When I got the call to come up, I knew it was going to be an exciting year, regardless of our record," Bigbie said. "I'll always remember when I got my first major-league hit. I've got the lineup card, and he's in there. A lot of guys say, `I played with this guy, I played with that guy,' but I've got proof. I was hitting seventh, he was hitting fifth. That's something I'm going to keep forever. I'll have it framed."

Towers, the bright young pitching prospect, relied on Ripken for verbal and non-verbal cues during his rookie season.

"We talked about baseball and pitching and hitters many times," Towers said. "In Tampa Bay, Cal told me, `Throw your game, don't try to be anyone else. These hitters aren't that good, you're better than these guys.' I would step off [the mound] at times and look at Cal. He'd give me a little up and in [signal], or inside or outside. He'd give me a pitch selection or location to help me out."

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