Today’s not a day to feel bad for Cal Ripken, but there’s an aspect to his career that must bug him to this day. He peaked in his second year.
I don’t mean that he never was better than he was in 1983. In 1991 he won the MVP again. But in 1991 he won that MVP for a losing team. In 1983 not only did he win the MVP but his team won the World Series. He achieved the highest personal and team accomplishments in his second year. While he continued to play well, he had little to enjoy about his team.
From 1968 to 1985 the Orioles were one of the best teams (if not the best) in baseball. They were well managed both on and off the field. But 1985 was the last of 18 consecutive years in which they would finish with a winning record. 1986 marked the first time the team finished in last place. The team’s collapse was quick and brutal.
Yet when Cal came up it must have seemed that throughout his career he’d be playing for a well run club. In 1982 the Orioles lost the AL East crown on the final day of the season to the Milwaukee Brewers. (In 1982 there was no wild card and the Brewers were in the AL East.) The Brewers, with a 3 game lead, came to Baltimore for a four game series. The Orioles won the first 3, setting up the critical final game of the year. (1982 was the final year of Earl Weaver’s first stint as manager.)
The next year the Orioles won the world series against Philadelphia.
Cal must have thought that he’s always be playing on winning teams. But Cal got to see the worst in Baltimore. He was with the team that in 1988 started off with a record 21 consecutive losses. In the remaining eighteen years of his career, following 1983, the Orioles made the playoffs twice, in 1996 and 1997, but most years weren’t even close. (They had winning records in 1984, 1985, 1989, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997.) In 1989 they had the wonderful (quirky) “Why not?” season in which they followed up the disastrous 1988 campaign with pennant chase that lasted until the final weekend of the season against the Toronto Blue Jays. In 1994, the Orioles likely would have been the first wild card team but the season was cut short by the strike.
But after winning the World Series in 1983, most of Cal Ripken’s career was played with teams that had no chance. He watched his brother come up to the big league club with a lot of fanfare. But Billy wasn’t his brother’s equal and was eventually released. His late father, Cal Sr. finally achieved his dream of becoming manager in 1987 only to be fired six games into the disastrous 1988 season. Cal Sr. returned as third base coach for a few more years and was fired again in the early 90′s by then-manager Johnny Oates.
Given the lack of winning and the hard knocks taken by his brother and father it would have been easy for Cal to become bitter and disgruntled. But he never did. He kept on playing and kept on producing. He became one of the most popular figures in Baltimore sports history. And he did it with flair despite the many negatives going on around him. At a time that the team he spents his career with was collapsing he remained a ray of light in an otherwise bleak environment.
I guess that’s one of the “intangibles” that Cal brought to the Baltimore Orioles.
Throughout his career, Cal was dogged by criticism that he was stubborn or, worse, selfish, by putting the streak ahead of the team’s good. Very respectfully, Baseball Musings wonders the same thing
And looking at all this again makes me wonder if the streak should have stopped in 1984. When Ripken put up consecutive .370+ OBA, .510+ Slugging at ages 22 and 23, he should have had serious upside in front of him. Maybe a .420 OBA, 40 home season when he peaked in his mid to late 20s. I really wonder how many injuries he played through that took a toll on his batting stats.
Yes, from 1982 to 1991, he really was that good, his only weakness being the double-play ball. How much a guy plays is so underrated as a measure of value: When you consider the average offensive production of the average backup shortstop in the ’80s, Ripkenâ€™s refusal to come out of the lineup even for an inning in those years becomes all the more valuable.
Crossposted on Soccer Dad.
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