“The sooner one side blinks, the better”

Chris Davis and the Orioles remain locked in an expensive dance.

Two seasons ago, Chris Davis finally cried out from the wilderness of his ionosphere-salaried decline. A few months after the eyes of the nation fell upon the grace with which he handled and finally ended an unconscionable hitless-game streak, Davis finally boiled over following a low throw across the infield that he couldn’t handle at first base.

He had words with his Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, after Hyde apparently made a remark about the errant scoop attempt. Hyde may have been as painfully unaware of Davis’s own internal estimation of his own self-deflation as Davis was in the moment that the skipper had enough trying to stir accountability within a mediocre team.

The Orioles had the next day off. Davis spent it the best way he knew, regrouping with his wife and children. “That’s really the only way that I know kind of how to escape, is just to be a dad, and be a husband,” he said. “I enjoyed the time with them, but I look forward to coming back in there and getting back to work with these guys.”

When he returned to work the first thing Davis did was report to Hyde to apologise and talk frankly. He told reporters he thought both himself and his skipper “had an off day. I think it was probably best that we did, just to kind of give us a little bit of time. I didn’t think about it a whole lot. I tried not to. I think he was kind of in the same boat.” Hyde for his part said nothing suggesting he’d hold the meltdown against Davis.

Davis spoke of “a couple of weeks” worth of frustration, but the suspicion was that he really meant more than a couple of seasons. His collapse after signing a lucrative seven-year deal has been nothing short of surrealistic.

Bravery when you lead your league in home runs two out of three seasons running is simple. Leading the league in striking out two consecutive seasons makes bravery a lot less simple. Then, when your OPS (.539, 2018)  is lower than the lowest team OPS in the league (the 2018 Tigers: .697), bravery isn’t even a topic. Not when you might be tempted to say, as a button given Frank Robinson while he managed a murderous Oriole losing steak decades earlier, “It’s been lovely, but I have to scream now.”

Barring either Davis or the Orioles or both deciding at long enough last that the proverbial jig is up, they’re stuck with each other until the end of the 2022 season. “Davis and the Orioles,” Baltimore Sun writer Jon Meoli wrote last month, “are in a staring contest over the remainder of his career that neither seems to be willing to blink in.”

On pure baseball terms, things look simpler. Trey Mancini is recovered from cancer and looking to be the regular Oriole first baseman; they have a little juggling to think about in the designated hitter slot with Renato Nunez absent for the time being, but bank on it. That won’t be Davis’s full-time job, either.

What does it do to a man who has tasted greatness at one point in his professional career only to taste harder-sustained failure elsewhere during the same career? From 2013-2016 Davis was a no questions asked great hitter who looked like a classic late bloomer. (He was 27 in 2013.) His past four seasons have made that spell resemble a protracted flash in the proverbial pan.

Enough players have had such long enough terms of greatness followed by far longer terms of invisibility. Baseball is more crowded than the busiest airport or railroad station by those players whose careers were nondescript but who had blinks when they resembled men who stepped forth from the lands of the giants.

For every Dick Radatz (three years: the nastiest reliever in baseball; five injury-pushed years of low-fi pitching later: career over) there’s a Moe Drabowsky. (Game One, 1966 World Series; nothing much otherwise but beloved pranksterism—and surrendering Stan Musial’s 3,000th career hit.) For every Roger Maris (busting ruthsrecord in the middle of three Hall of Fame-like seasons; injury-abetted fall over six years to follow), there’s a Pablo Sandoval. (Game One, 2012 World Series; nothing much otherwise beyond his roly-poly Kung Fu Panda image.)

Former Orioles infielder Mike Bordick, once a Davis teammate and now an Orioles broadcaster, thinks Davis has people rooting for him to re-emerge from his protracted collapse even if such re-emergence may never happen. He’d had a good spring training before baseball shut down over the coronavirus pan-damn-ic last year, but he had less than a stellar “summer camp” before an injury curtailed a mediocre enough irregular season for him.

A Davis comeback is “never going to happen because of his work habits,” Bordick told NBC Sports Washington in December.

He proved that after he left spring training [last year] because when he came back he wasn’t the same. He didn’t have the same explosive bat speed. He didn’t even have the same mental attitude. He thought he could repeat that without the repetition of the work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in baseball. Period. I don’t care what age you are, but as you age in this game, you actually have to work harder, not less.

One of the most human of impulses is the belief that, because you did it and sustained it once before, you can do it again, at will. Davis isn’t the only ballplayer to learn the hard way how that can veer between difficult and impossible. Even for those who work harder as elders than they did as live youth.

Just ask Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols, who may yet retire after this season after a decade worth of his feet and legs betraying him to the point where he looked a sad impersonation of his once off-the-charts-formidable self. And Pujols, one of the proudest of men ever to play the game, never stopped working hard.

“The sooner one side blinks,” Meoli concluded of Davis and the Orioles, “the better for all involved.” Whichever side does blink at last, it’ll take a glandular swallow of pride.

“You just have to wear some things”

Buck Showalter facing the press after the 2016 AL wild card game.

Former major league manager Buck Showalter had the perfect chance to explain himself once and for all. He sat for an otherwise splendid interview with the New York Post‘s Steve Serby, published Friday. He offered several splendid recollections, revelations, and insights.

Then, just after he explained today’s Yankees sticking with Gary Sanchez behind the plate despite his problems at it, Serby asked the money question: “Your Orioles controversy in the 2016 AL wild-card game when you didn’t call on Zack Britton and lost in the bottom of the 11th in Toronto.”

Showalter, one of the most intelligent managers of his time, a man who once resigned as the Yankees’ manager rather than stand for one of his most trusted coaches being removed, defaulted: “You just have to wear some things, and I can sit here and tell you ten things you may not know about that situation, but nobody wants to hear it. I’m at peace with that.”

Serby didn’t seem to push just a little for the ten things Showalter thinks we may not have known about that situation, and Showalter’s probably dead wrong that nobody would have wanted to hear even one of them. If Rob Neyer ever gets the chance to update 2006’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, bet big on Showalter’s wild card game mistake, ten years after that book, showing up prominently.

Bottom of the eleventh, Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles tied with the Toronto Blue Jays at two. One out, and Ubaldo Jimenez, usually a starting pitcher, relieving Brian Dueseng after Dueseng opened by striking Ezequiel Careera swinging. Back-to-back singles setting the Blue Jays up for first and third, and Zach Britton, the Orioles closer and arguably the best relief pitcher in 2016 baseball, nowhere to be seen—even though Showalter used six relief pitchers already.

Just like Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals not even thinking of Trevor Rosenthal in the 2014 National League Championship Series in the bottom of the ninth in San Francisco, Showalter reasoned, too, that Britton’s job as his closer was to come in strictly with a lead.

As Matheny stuck with rusty Michael Wacha in San Francisco, Showalter bargained on Jimenez, who’d pitched well down the Oriole stretch, holding fort in Toronto and the Orioles breaking the tie in the twelfth with Manny Machado due to lead off. (The real shock of that game: two of the league’s most bludgeoning lineups got themselves into a pitching duel most of the night.)

Like Matheny, Showalter forgot—if it was ever programmed into their software in the first place—that the time to bring in your best relief pitcher was when you needed a stopper right then and there, not when his “role” mandated.

“It wasn’t just that he hadn’t used Britton,” wrote Jeff Passan, then a baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. “It was that any number of game states presented themselves with Britton’s use optimal, and Showalter ignored them all the way to his team’s demise.”

Travis Ishikawa delivered Matheny’s reminder a lot more brutally when his three-run homer sailed to the top of Levi’s Landing with a Giants pennant attached. Showalter got off easier by comparison. Edwin Encarnacion’s three-run homer into the second deck merely sent the Blue Jays to a division series.

What were the ten things about that situation Showalter could have told us but he thinks we don’t want to know?

Surely he knows he’s not the first and won’t be the last manager having to wear, own, and live with such things. Some of them owned and explained them with no attempt to evade responsibility. Some of them owned but excused them. Some of them could barely bring themselves to own them. Some of them thought it was God’s will or somebody else’s fault.

Hall of Fame manager Joe McCarthy took the blame squarely for picking Denny Galehouse to start over Mel Parnell at the last minute (Parnell reported to Fenway Park that day expecting to go) against the Cleveland Indians in the 1948 pennant playoff game. A McCarthy biographer quoted the old man as telling Parnell himself, “I made a mistake. I’ll just have to live with it.”

Charley Dressen, as Neyer pointed out, “never made a mistake he couldn’t blame on somebody else.” Citing Brooklyn Dodgers exec Buzzie Bavasi, Neyer revealed Dressen blundered when the Dodgers won the coin flip for the famous-turned-infamous 1951 pennant playoff—and elected to play Game One in Ebbets Field, where the Giants didn’t usually play well, but Games Two and Three in the Polo Grounds, where the Dodgers usually didn’t.

Ill-fated Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca would remember Dodgers ticket manager Jack Collins calling the coin flip back in Brooklyn since the Dodgers were in Philadelphia at the moment. Not quite. “Dressen . . . probably told anybody who’d listen,” Neyer wrote, “that the pointy-headed ticket sales manager was the one who screwed up.” The pointy-headed ticket sales manager got canned after the season, too. The Giants stole the pennant, but the Dodgers blew their cleanest shot at it when Dressen blew that coin flip.

Casey Stengel had to answer for failing to align his 1960 World Series rotation well enough to give his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford three instead of two Series starts. The Pittsburgh Pirates still like to thank him for that. The Ol’ Perfesser didn’t discuss it in his memoir Casey at the Bat. A month after Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was killed in his humanitarian-mission plane crash, the Hall of Fame skipper gave Boston radio reporter Ken Meyer an interview:

I blame myself on the whole Series. I mean for the Yankees losing. Now here’s the reason why I make that statement was because I thought Ford was so good . . . if I’da pitched him in the first game he’da been in better shape to go in the last game when I blow the Series.

Stengel’s biographer Robert W. Creamer translated the Stengelese to mean pitching Ford in Game One instead of holding him back until Game Three might have let Ford pitch Game Five and then be available in relief, maybe even to start, for Game Seven.

Showalter has more company in that special club whose membership requirements are that you’re a manager who blew one of the biggest decisions of your major league life, if not the big one. He has Matheny, Dressen, Stengel, and Gene Mauch to join him.

He has Leo Durocher, who burned the 1969 Cubs out as the Miracle Mets heated up fresh to stay. He has Tony La Russa, who blew a 1990 World Series he might have won, or at least kept from losing in a sweep, if he’d thrown his personal Book out and let his Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley pitch at least twice before ninth innings.

He has Dusty Baker. (Reference Mark Prior staying in but no activity in the bullpen, Game Six, 2003 National League Championship Series, with the Cubs six outs from the World Series.) He has Grady Little. (Pedro Martinez, gassed but left in two hitters too long, Game Seven, 2003 American League Championship Series.)

Most of the time such men wear, own, and explain their mistakes plausibly, even if their teams’ fans would still prefer to see them strapped in the electric chair. Most of the time. When Mauch’s 1964 Phillies returned home after finishing the pennant race they’d blown, Mauch refused to let his players leave the plane before he did: “You didn’t blow the pennant. I did.”

But when John McNamara elected to keep Bill Buckner at first base for the bottom of the tenth in Game Six, 1986 Series, rather than send his uninjured regular late defensive replacement Dave Stapleton out, McNamara refused to change his original tune. He wanted his wounded warrior Buckner out there as he “deserved” to be when the Red Sox finally won it all and that was it, that was all, and that was goodbye.

To the day he died McNamara never backed off. His widow was very right saying upon his death that his entire career shouldn’t be judged by one game. McNamara clinging that stubbornly to his original rationale is its own kind of admirable, but it didn’t make him any less dead wrong.

What’s the worst that Showalter could face now if he’d just given Serby what was asked for and explained himself once and for all about why Zach Britton was nowhere to be seen when Edwin Encarnacion destroyed the 2016 Orioles’ season in one fell swing? Twenty-second guessing?

Oriole fan would still love to hear it. So, really, would baseball fan without a particular Baltimore rooting interest. Showalter has to wear that, too.

Ripken does not live by 2,131 alone

With his parents Vi and Cal, Sr. behind them, Cal Ripken, Jr. accepts congratulations from Joe DiMaggio, whose teammate’s streak Ripken had just broken 25 years ago.

After the game in which Cal Ripken, Jr. passed Lou Gehrig for consecutive major league games played, Joe DiMaggio—Gehrig’s teammate from 1936-39—spoke to the jammed Camden Yards crowd. He opened his on-field tribute by quoting Gehrig’s Yankee Stadium monument.

“A man, a gentleman, and a great ball player whose amazing record of 2,130 consecutive games should stand for all time,” the monument still reads, beneath a bronze impression of Gehrig’s face beneath his Yankee cap. DiMaggio finished quoting the sentence, then tilted his head a bit to his right.

The Clipper arched his right eyebrow, as if in slightly bemused disbelief. He pursed his lips into a half-mischievious, half-astonished look on the face age softened into a kind of regal handsomeness. As the crowd began to cheer again, he continued.

“Well, that goes to prove even the greatest records are made to be broken,” said the man whose own record 56-game hitting streak was once thought more likely to fall before Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. “And . . . wherever my former teammate Lou Gehrig is today, I’m sure he’s tipping his cap to you, Cal Ripken.”

Ripken’s father, Cal, Sr., an Oriole legend in his own right as a longtime minor league manager and teacher, stood behind DiMaggio beaming as DiMaggio turned to the son who’d just “reached the unreachable star,” as ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman said the moment 2,131 became an official game.

Ripken himself smiled in both relief and a little bit of awe as DiMaggio continued, “He’s a one in a million ballplayer, who came along to break [Gehrig’s] record, and my congratulations to you, Cal, you certainly deserve this lasting tribute.”

DiMaggio was 6’2″ in his playing days. Ripken was 6’4″ as he remains today, so far. Thanks to age, DiMaggio now stood a full head shorter as he shook hands with Ripken’s parents. He hadn’t just come forth to give a formal scripted tribute. The Clipper had watched the entire game (so had fellow Hall of Famers Frank and Brooks Robinson, the latter in the Orioles broadcast booth), including Ripken’s hefty drive halfway up the left field seats in the bottom of the fourth.

In game terms the Orioles’ 4-2 win meant almost nothing in their American League East standings, headed as they were for a third-place finish fifteen games behind the eventual East champion Boston Red Sox. The California Angels, in first place in the AL West that night, ended up finishing a game behind the champion Seattle Mariners after they couldn’t force a playoff game against Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

But in baseball terms, of course, Ripken’s achievement meant more than the outcome of any pennant race or World Series. In the aftermath of a players’ strike that disillusioned the country, abetted no end by a sporting press two thirds of which at least bought into the owners’ insistence that the players stop them before they overspent yet again, Ripken told his country and the world it was more than okay to love the game all over again.

“My favorite piece of memorabilia of my years playing is the lithograph of him hitting that home run off me that he had signed for me the next year,” says Shawn Boskie, the Angels pitcher who surrendered that fourth-inning bomb, as part of The Athletic‘s remarkable oral history of the record night. “The biggest thing that can be said is that the electricity and the anticipation for that game, building up to that moment, is something that I would expect I’ll never see again.”

Ripken wasn’t always understood so well until he finally did pass Gehrig. For months he’d had to put up with notions from intelligentsia and fans alike that he was putting himself ahead of his team. The consummate team player, who’d been raised to believe that being an everyday player meant just that so long as you could play, must have bristled under that unwarranted lash.

He turned 35 shortly before he consummated the streak. He wasn’t having a classic Ripken year in a season shortened to 144 games by the hangover of the strike. To this day, he doesn’t buy the selfishness argument.

“I always thought my job was (as) a player. My job was to come to the ballpark ready to play, and the streak was not created because I dictated I was going to play,” he said for The Athletic‘s oral history.

It was created because I brought value to each and every day. The manager chose me . . . It was more about being there for the team and you could even make the case that it was a little bit more unselfish than selfish. But I endured the criticism. People enjoyed taking that position when it happened. And I always thought your best protection against that was to get out of your slump. As soon as you got out of your slump, all of that stuff went away.

Ken Rosenthal, today an Athletic writer and Fox Sports broadcaster but then covering the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun, understands well. “Whether it was a worthwhile endeavor or not, whether he could have had an even better career,” he said for the oral history, “we can debate that until we’re blue in the face.”

His point always was, ‘Hey, if my manager feels that I’m the best guy to be out there, well, that’s it.’ It wasn’t always that simple, of course, because managers felt afraid, I think, to (not start him). But I remember (former Orioles manager) Johnny Oates always saying, ‘Hey man, two outs in the ninth, that’s where I want the ball hit.’ And even when he wasn’t hitting, that was always the case. It was just a remarkable accomplishment. … It was a testament to his toughness, his mental strength, all of the physical attributes, everything. Just to do it was unreal.

Ripken would finish his career with 431 home runs, hitting 353 of them as a regular shortstop—ahead of Alex Rodriguez (345 as a regular shortstop) and fellow Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (298 as a regular shortstop). Remember: he was the prototype of the big man who could play a field position formerly governed by not-so-big men with spaghetti bats. Eight men have finished careers with 3,000+ hits and 400+ home runs; Ripken’s the only mostly middle infielder in the pack.

Baseball Reference defines fielding runs as the number of runs saved above the league average based on how many plays you make. Ripken’s 181 lifetime are behind only two shortstops, ever: his Oriole predecessor Mark Belanger* (238) and his fellow Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith (239). Belanger’s Oriole predecessor, Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio (who did most of his best work for the White Sox previously), is 27 behind Ripken.

For those willing to set aside Alex Rodriguez’s baggage, know that A-Rod isn’t even among the top 24 shortstops for fielding runs. He’s barely among the top one hundred. (His career total: +18.) We now know that those Seattle seasons during which he was hyped as possibly the greatest all-around shortstop of all time in the making was just that, hype.

Without the complete defensive numbers for Hall of Famer Honus Wagner (fielding runs weren’t even considered in his time, and Wagner’s only eleventh all-time in range factor, 23rd in career assists, and 79th in double plays turned, if that helps), we may or may not be able to say Ripken is the greatest all-around shortstop who ever played the game in any era. But it’s very safe to say he’s the absolute best all-around shortstop of the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. No questions asked.

Would Ripken have done even better, after his throwing arm finally began resigning after all those years and games, had he been moved to second base instead of third for his final five and a half seasons? Would he have been healthy enough to hit 500+ if he had taken time off when injured? We’ll never know. We don’t have to know, either.

Once upon a time, reviewing DiMaggio’s war-interrupted career, Bill James suggested that times come when we shouldn’t measure a player “by what he could have done, by what he should have done, by what he would have done, but what he did done.” Ripken did done an awful lot more than just put on a two-decade show of physical and mental endurance.

He earned the right to be measured by far more than just what proved to be 2,632 consecutive games played before he finally took himself out of the lineup. He shakes out on the evidence as the number three shortstop ever to play the game. (A-Rod and the Flying Dutchman are ahead of him only because of their bats; Ripken has more defensive wins above replacement-level than a) the pair of them and b) any shortstop other than Belanger and Smith.) He didn’t get there only by showing up to work every day.

Twenty-five years later, Ripken doesn’t have to apologise to anyone or justify himself for hanging in tough and proud enough to break Lou Gehrig’s streak. He did it in honest competition; he came out of far fewer games than Gehrig actually did. It wasn’t Gehrig’s fault that an insidious disease ended his streak and career at once; it wasn’t a black mark against Ripken that his health allowed the Iron Bird to pass the Iron Horse.

Joe DiMaggio was right—Gehrig probably did tip his cap from the Elysian Fields to Ripken that night. Today, from those same Elysian Fields, Gehrig and DiMaggio will both tip their caps. So will every Oriole in uniform at Camden Yards this afternoon—when the Orioles play the Yankees.

The only shame in either the streak itself or its silver anniversary is that the coronavirus world tour continues keeps fans out of the ballparks. The idea of canned noise of a standing ovation celebrating Ripken this afternoon somehow seems as fraudulent as Ripken’s achievement wasn’t.


* So why isn’t Mark Belanger—clearly Ozzie Smith’s near-equal as a defensive shortstop—in the Hall of Fame, despite the Hall more recently taking defense, preventing runs, far more seriously than it had during his era?

I suspect three reasons:

1) He couldn’t hit even compared to Ozzie Smith, who laboured to improve as a hitter as his career went on.

2) His career ended before the advent of the ESPN/SportsCenter/cable era that so boosted Smith as Smith’s career really began taking off, leaving Belanger’s own acrobatic defense away from reaching the audiences outside Baltimore that it should have reached. He won eight Gold Gloves at shortstop but never made an All-Star team, so he never got even that chance before national television audiences.

3) He only appeared in two World Series almost a decade apart, the second toward the end of his career. He didn’t really have the chances Brooks Robinson, his Hall of Fame partner at third base, had to show the country beyond Baltimore [in the 1966, 1969, and 1970 World Series] what he was made of in the field in the pre-cable era.

Silver anniversary of a platinum night

Cal Ripken, Jr.  takes his victory lap after his 2,131st consecutive game became official.

Just how old are we getting? One Sunday, Tom Seaver, the arguable greatest pitcher of his generation, loses a cruel battle against Lewy body dementia with a little help from the coronavirus. The following Sunday, tomorrow, baseball in general and Baltimore in particular celebrate the silver anniversary of the record everyone thought couldn’t be broken.

Until it was.

If you don’t count his sort-of cup-of-coffee 1981, Cal Ripken, Jr. and Seaver played the same number of major league seasons. (Twenty.) Ripken’s place in baseball lore would have been secured even without besting Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played by 502, thanks to being the guy who proved tall, powerful men could play an infield position once thought the domain of bantamweights while hitting ike heavyweights.

Do you remember consecutive game 2,131 in Camden Yards? Baltimore won’t forget, but a lot of people with no skin in the Orioles’ game might need a refresher.

Ripken played consecutive game 2,129 and hit one out. He equaled Gehrig the next night . . . and hit one out. On the night he passed the Iron Horse, the Iron Bird turned on a 3-0 pitch from California Angels righthander Shawn Boskie in the bottom of the fourth—and sent it halfway up the left field seats.

“I gave him a great gift,” said Boskie after the game, with no malice aforethought. “I gave him the best gift he could get. It was three balls and no strikes. I felt like I had no outs. I didn’t want to walk a guy and get things started that way. At the same time, I felt like he might be swinging, but I felt like, Hey, I’ve got to take a chance of him popping it up or hitting a grounder. But he didn’t, so . . . Cal Ripken Day.”

The Orioles beat the Angels in that money game, 4-2. The sellout audience of 46,272 went at least as nuts at that blast as they’d go when the game became official at around 9:20 p.m. Eastern time. When Chris Berman, calling the game for ESPN, declared, “Cal Ripken, Jr. has reached the unreachable star.”

That was before then: We thought someone had a better shot at breaking Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak than Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games. This has been since then: We think someone will have a better shot at DiMaggio’s streak than Ripken’s 2,632 consecutive games.

It took them over 22 minutes to calm down to mere cheering and applause after that point. The Camden audience included two Hall of Famers, one of whom was Ripken’s manager for a spell (Frank Robinson) and the other of whom just so happened to have had Gehrig himself as a living, breathing teammate. (DiMaggio.)

They celebrated the elite middle infielder who’d retire as the only one among the game’s eight greatest shortstops ever to nail three thousand hits or more and four hundred home runs or more. (Alex Rodriguez, love him or loathe him, moved to third base when he joined the Yankees and fell short of the milestones as a shortstop.)

The elite shortstop who never acted like anything more than the ordinary working stiff, from the dock or the line or the shop or the store to the boardroom and the penthouse and the Lear jet, showing up to work every day, few if any questions asked, never thinking of delivering less than the best of whatever he had.

Unknown, uncountable millions of such working stiffs showed up to work every day for eons before Ripken and continue doing so. How many of them don’t just show up but excel and even transcend their jobs?

“People who don’t know baseball as big leaguers experience it,” wrote George F. Will, “say: How lucky for Ripken that he was never hurt. Actually, he has been hurt every year, but not hurt enough to justify, in his mind, taking a day off. What defines Ripken is his defintion of ‘enough’.”

How many of them did it regardless of such interruptions as the 1994-95 strike for which the players took an unwarranted public relations beating thanks to a two-thirds-cowed press buying all the way into the owners’ insistence that the players stop them before they overspent, mis-spent, or mal-spent yet again?

No single player decided his brethren should spend the final third of 1994 and a sliver of 1995 on the picket instead of the field. Fools who think Ripken’s streak should be asterisked because of the strike ought to be asterisked themselves.

When White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf—the owner who pushed the hardest to force the strike—celebrated its end by insisting he wouldn’t leave Albert Belle’s domain until Belle kindly signed a three-year contract paying him three million a year more than the previous highest single-season player salary, he exposed himself and every other owner who pushed hardest to force that strike as hypocrites.

Ripken running out the home run he hit an inning before 2,131 became official.

The Camden crowd almost couldn’t have cared less about such not-so-fine details on the Big Night. But they celebrated an awful lot more than just their own baseball icon passing the record of a past baseball icon.

Shirley Povich, the arguable dean of deans among Washington baseball writers for what seemed a couple of centuries, a man who covered Walter Johnson saving the Washington Senators’ only World Series triumph and the Iron Bird leaving the Iron Horse behind, nailed it best:

By acclamation, Ripken has won approval as a hero and role model. In Gehrig’s day there were heroes, like himself and Babe Ruth, but folks didn’t talk of role models and, anyway, they would have been hard to find. So many, like Ruth, were flawed, so many like Gehrig were nice guys but absorbed mostly in baseball with little time for the community.

For all his fame, Cal Ripken is homespun. On the morning of the day he would go for the record he said it was important, too, that he take his daughter Rachel, 5, to her first day in school. When the cheers in Camden Yards were at their loudest—”We want Cal!”—he asked for his mom and dad to come onto the field to share them. When he got those eight curtain calls and he took that victory lap around the park, he tried to shake every hand offered him. He was being more than cheered. This was adoration.

Indeed, as Thomas Boswell recorded, Ripken wore a unique T-shirt beneath his Oriole uniform on the record night. It said on the back, “2130-plus. Hugs and Kisses for Daddy.” The audience saw it when Ripken removed and handed his jersey and hat to his first wife and their two small children after the game became official and the thunder began. Rachel Ripken, whom Daddy drove to school that morning, couldn’t resist crowing, “See, Daddy’s wearing my shirt!”

It happened after Ripken lined out to end the bottom of the fifth, after the game became official in the books. He donned a fresh jersey post-haste. Rarely a man of show, Ripken took about thirty curtain calls. Then he let teammates push him into taking that long victory lap around the park. Fans shook his hand. Umpires embraced him. Every Angel within reach who didn’t shake his hand bear-hugged him instead. Among the small sea of banners in the park read one particularly telling one:

We consider ourselves the luckiest fans on the face of the earth. Thanks Cal.

“My dad taught that ‘being an everyday player’ is literally every day,” Ripken told Boswell after he passed Gehrig. “My rookie year reinforced it. We tied the Brewers after 161 games. But we lost the last game of the season.”

Ripken’s devotion to his father’s devotion sometimes created issues. When the Orioles canned Cal, Sr. as their manager early in that notorious season-opening 21-game losing streak, Ripken was sorely tempted to leave the only organisation he’d known from his childhood to his major league playing career. He didn’t leave. His father probably wouldn’t have let him even think about it, but Ripken’s loyalty to the Orioles was the only thing equal to that for his family.

He led the Orioles in developing a gallows humour as that sad streak proceeded forward and successor manager (and fellow Hall of Famer) Frank Robinson did what he could with whatever he did or didn’t have. When a brand-new reporter covering the Orioles arrived in the clubhouse for the first time, Ripken beckoned him over. “Join the hostages,” the shortstop deadpanned.

“Ripken runs the risk,” Will observed, “of being remembered more for his work ethic than for the quality of his work.” Well. Ripken won two Most Valuable Player awards and both came in seasons described modestly as earth-shaking. His first MVP came in a season he helped the Orioles win their last-known World Series rings. His second, eight years apart (not quite enough to pass Hall of Famer Willie Mays for the greatest spread between MVPs), shows him earning the highest wins above replacement level (11.5) that year for any infielder, corner or middle, since . . . Gehrig (11.8) in 1927.

Only five position players in the post-integration era have two or more 10-WAR seasons, in fact. Cal Ripken, shake hands with Carl Yastrzemski (two), Barry Bonds (three), Mickey Mantle (three), and Mays (six). Ripken also became the first position player to beat Ty Cobb in percentage of Hall of Fame votes (98.5 percent to Cobb’s 98.2). Tom Seaver was the first any player to beat Cobb (98.8 percent), and his vote record stood until Ken Griffey, Jr.’s 99.3 percent.

Ripken led his league’s shortstops in assists seven times (he’s number eight all-time), putouts six, and double plays eight. (He’s number three all-time there.) Would you like to know the shortstop who’s hit the most home runs in major league history as a shortstop? It isn’t A-Rod. (345 as a regular shortstop.) It isn’t Ernie Banks. (298 as a regular shortstop.) The fellow who took that victory lap passing Gehrig for workplace attendance hit 353 of his lifetime 431 home runs as a regular shortstop.

Tomorrow, Ripken’s Hall of Fame credentials won’t bat as high in the order as the magnitude of what he achieved a quarter century earlier. If you think Baltimore won’t forget, you should listen to Ripken himself. YouTube’s made the game available to a fare-thee-well, but the Iron Bird himself couldn’t bear to watch it again until last month, says the Baltimore Sun.

“For the longest time,” he told Sun writer Mike Klingaman, “I wanted to preserve the memories I had with my own eyes. I was afraid that if I saw the game as it was, that experience would ruin it. The night was so special that I wanted it to be my memories — and I don’t regret having done that.”

Ask him as Boswell did to name his greatest baseball moments, Ripken—a prostate cancer survivor now who works to raise awareness of preventative checkups, and whose foundation named for his father builds a hundred or more Youth Development Parks in Washington and in 26 states so far—will tell you without hesitation.

“Catching the last out of the World Series in ’83 is my biggest moment,” he says. “There’s a finality, a fulfillment that just hits you in that instant. But the lap around the park was the biggest human moment.”

It’s not that Ripken’s life has lacked for sorrow. He and his family endured his widowed mother’s kidnapping and swift enough return in 2012; his first marriage ended shy of thirty years in 2016. But his son Ryan has become a professional baseball player in the Orioles’ now-on-hold minor league system. And Rachel—the daughter who put hugs and kisses for Daddy on his record night’s T-shirt—is now the director of community service for Colorado University’s athletics department.

Two years after his divorce, Ripken married Anne Arundel County (Maryland) Circuit Court Judge Laura Kiessling. Her Honour changed her name to read the Hon. Laura S. Ripken. Her husband’s long-legendary longevity proves that, unlike some of those appearing before her bench, she won’t have to teach him how to avoid being ruled out of order or held in contempt.

The upstarts of West Camden Street?

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Whichever era’s gear you like, it looks safe to be an Oriole fan again. So far. All things considered.

I’m not seeing things, really, I keep telling myself. So do most of you who aren’t part of the fan base. So, probably, do most of those whose allegiance—in cardboard cutouts this pandemic season, unfortunately—anchors at 333 West Camden Street in Baltimore.

Where the Orioles have suddenly re-graduated themselves from birds of prey, as in prey for the other guys, to the American League East’s second-best record behind the beasts of the south Bronx and fourth-best record in the entire league.

Entering Sunday the Orioles had the fourth-most runs per game (5.35), the sixth-best team on-base percentage (.334), the second-best team slugging percentage (.466), the second-best team OPS (.800), the second-highest total bases (320), and the sixth-lowest team number of hitters banging into double plays (10) . . . in the entire Show.

So far.

They didn’t do it against their fellow presumed cream puffs, either. They’ve beaten the world champion Washington Nationals four out of five times, and the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays both three out of three.

They’re also one of the Show’s most prolific road shows, too, even in this coronavirus-nourished Quiet, Please! Alfred Hitchcock Presents Dimension X Minus One Fella’s Family of a season—nine road games, eight wins.

They’ve even had a six-game winning streak and they’ve won seven out of eight, including those four wins dropped on the Nats pending today’s skirmish in Camden Yards.

All that despite their pitching being near the bottom third of the league’s team ERA pack and near it in team pitching strikeouts while being just about dead center for surrendering the big flies.

It’s enough to make even generic baseball collectors reach for their Oriole hats of any era, plop them atop their heads almost daily, and wonder what strange new feats of derring-do await from a team who’d turned too profoundly into the AL East’s feats of derring-don’t even think about it.

Maybe the only more surprising ensembles in the Show right now are the Miami Marlins, who didn’t let a little thing such as practically the entire team waylaid by COVID-19 positives stop them from remaking/remodeling on the fly and entering Sunday afternoon with the number five winning percentage.

Most fish get the ick and croak. These Fish either got or laid dormant the coronavirus, lost what seemed like half their first-third of the season . . . and went from the guppies of the National League East to its barracudas. Just pray that they don’t begin behaving like real barracuda and start eating their young. Oops. Maybe the Marlins already did that—their average age is 29.4.

Come to think of it, the Marlins won nine games so far entering Sunday, and four of them came against . . . the Orioles. With this season’s cockamamie-looking playoff plan, it may not be thinking two thousand light years from home to imagine these Birds of Prey against those Flying Fish. It might be jarring, it might seem to threaten the natural order of things, but it may not be all that surreal.

So what went on in Camden Yards on Sunday afternoon? A little comic relief from Nats manager Dave Martinez, for openers, objecting to a pitch call with an extremely emphatic Horse[spit]! Horse [fornicating] [spit]! Didya hear me? in the bottom of the second. (O Vin Scully, where is thy sting?)

Let’s see . . . an RBI single, a sacrifice fly, and another RBI single put the Nats up 3-0 in the top of the first. Oriole right fielder Anthony Satlander got one back in the bottom, off Max Scherzer, with a one-out blast into the right field bleachers. A sacrifice fly and another RBI single made it 5-1, Nats in the top of the fifth.

Orioles catcher Pedro Severino said, “That’s what you think,” with two aboard in the bottom of the sixth, catching hold of a Scherzer fastball practically down the chute and sending it over the left field fence. An inning later, Satlander found the screws on Scherzer’s two-out, 2-1 repeat changeup and repeated what he did in the first, to practically the same section of unoccupied real estate.

Tied at five. If the Orioles are really playing over their own heads, they weren’t going to let even Mad Max take them without a fight.

Oops. With two out and Juan Soto on second in the top of the eighth, Oriole third baseman Rio Ruiz threw Kurt Suzuki’s should-have-been inning-ending grounder wild enough to let Soto score and Suzuki have first and then second on the house.

That was no time for surprise generosity, Orioles. Unless it wasn’t that much of a surprise. The Orioles entered Sunday fifth in the American League with fourteen errors. Well, nobody’s perfect, and the Orioles are still trying to get used to winning again, however surrealistic the truncated season.

Heavy sighs of relief, mostly from the Oriole dugout, unless someone figured out a way to send the canned crowd sounds through any cutouts in the park. Oriole reliever Paul Fry got Nats pinch-hitter Eric Thames to pop out to shortstop Jose Iglesias for the side. Staying within one run was child’s play.

Wsn’t it?

It wasn’t. Not when Nats reliever Tanner Rainey struck out the side after opening the Oriole eighth by plunking designated hitter Renato Nunez and World Series finisher Daniel Hudson struck out two after opening the Oriole ninth with a ground ball out. Even upstarts like these Orioles can’t have everything yet, can they?

Horse [spit] Horse [fornicating] [spit]! Didya hear me?