As times changed, his show played on

Baseball: Ripken was a reasuring constant as both the Orioles and the major leagues went through turbulent times during the 1980s and 1990s

The Ripken Legacy : The Game

October 10, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The baseball world has changed quite a lot in the 20 years since Cal Ripken first put on a major-league uniform, but he could be forgiven for wishing that were not so.

He arrived in the big leagues during the golden age of the Orioles, in the latter stages of a string of 18 consecutive winning seasons that included seven division titles and six near misses. He was the home-grown heir to a winning legacy that must have seemed as if it would last forever.

"That was a good time for Oriole baseball," Ripken said. "I knew growing up that the Orioles organization as a whole was seen as a model throughout baseball. My dad spent 14 years in the minor leagues, and they were producing players and pushing them to the big leagues and winning.

"When I came through that, and came to the big leagues and we won, I thought there was going to be a continuation of that ... and there was reason to believe that would be true. Everyone was confident. Everyone was happy. Everyone contributed a little bit. And we won."

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Ripken won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1982 and was the league's Most Valuable Player during the 1983 world championship season, but the good times would quickly give way to a lengthy rebuilding period in the late 1980s and another sharp reversal of team fortune in the late 1990s.

He would see the Orioles go from the top of baseball's competitive hierarchy in 1983 to the bottom in 1988, when the club's season-opening 21-game losing streak set a record for futility and prompted the firing of manager Cal Ripken Sr. It was such a low point in his career that it was the only time that Ripken ever seriously considered abandoning the organization.

"The whole rebuilding process forced you to have doubts," Ripken said. "No one knew for sure. That was as close to being at rock bottom as a team could go. All the players I had played with [on the 1983 title team] were gone. We lost 100 games [actually 107]. If I had been forced to make a decision in that two-month period after my dad was fired, I might have opted out for a better situation. But I stayed and tried to be part of the rebuilding process."

The big picture wasn't much better. Baseball was in a period of tremendous turmoil during the 1980s. Ripken arrived in the majors just as the players were coming back from a two-month strike that was at that point the longest labor stoppage in the history of big-time professional sports. Little did anyone know that there was much worse on the distant horizon, but the entire decade was a test of the industry's resilience.

Ripken's squeaky-clean reputation was the pride of Baltimore, but a huge drug scandal would rock the sport in 1984 and tarnish baseball's All-American image. The labor situation would remain tense throughout the decade - the marked rise in player salaries leading to the infamous "free-agent freeze-out" that eventually would cost ownership $280 million in retroactive compensation for engaging in illegal collusion to smother the free-agent market.

The 1980s would end with the lifetime ban handed to all-time hit leader Pete Rose for gambling on baseball and the sudden death of commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti from a heart attack shortly after he handed down that ruling.

The '80s would end in Baltimore on a much higher note. The youthful "Why Not?" Orioles rebounded from the discouraging 1988 season to charge back into contention, pushing the Toronto Blue Jays to the final weekend of the regular season and raising hope for a competitive renaissance in the 1990s.

In the meantime, the franchise would go through its second ownership change since the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954. The estate of high-profile Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams sold the club to New York-based financier Eli Jacobs, whose tight-fisted ownership made it difficult for the team to build on its unexpected success in 1989.

The Orioles struggled through a disappointing 1990 season and slipped further in the standings in 1991, but Ripken enjoyed his own competitive renaissance that year. He had absorbed some streak-related criticism for his declining numbers in the final month of both the 1989 and '90 seasons, but he responded with an impressive wire-to-wire offensive performance that won him his second American League MVP trophy.

"A rebuilding situation is not an easy situation to go through," Ripken said recently. "That requires patience and persistence. The most fun is when you're part of a winner, when you can compete in September. Those seasons go by fast ... so fast."

More turbulent times were ahead, both for the Orioles and the rest of Major League Baseball. Jacobs' financial empire turned out to be a house of cards, and his resulting bankruptcy forced the Orioles to be put up for auction. The club was bought by current majority owner Peter Angelos in August 1993.

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