There are some nights when you just have to be there.
Cal Ripken Jr. was looking forward to the Orioles’ Friday night game against Boston, when the franchise decided to honor Jim Palmer for his 60 years with the organization. But Ripken was also keeping track of the Orioles’ magic number to clinch the AL East. On Thursday, he decided to change plans.
“When the magic number got down to one, I said, ‘I gotta go,’” Ripken told The Banner this week. “I didn’t send my tickets out yet, so Laura and I came down in hopes we would see them win. It was important to me to see, not necessarily the celebration, the sense of accomplishment and fulfillment that comes with that.”
Ripken, 63, wound up being part of the scene in the Orioles’ 2-0 win to clinch the AL East and the franchise’s first 100-win season since 1980. The Hall of Fame shortstop has gotten as caught up in this year’s resurgent team as the rest of Baltimore.
Back in early August, Ripken took the field again while reunited with the 1983 team, the last Oriole squad to win a World Series back in his second season when he won MVP. Even then, he was telling people around the team: “They’ve got a chance.”
While he called the season-ending injury to closer Felix Bautista “deflating,” Ripken still feels the same way when he surveils the team’s 48 comeback wins and its 30-16 record in one-run games. The top trait he sees in them is resilience.
“They don’t seem to panic in those moments — the higher-stress moments late in games,” he said. “They don’t get down on themselves when they fall behind by a couple runs early.”
Ripken would know: He became the “Iron Man” because of his record-setting durability in his streak of 2,632 games, but the nickname is appropriate for a sense of unflappability in the postseason. Ripken had a .336 average and a .411 on-base percentage in his postseason career (his roughest outing was the ‘83 World Series, which the Orioles won anyway).
There’s a full circle with this team 41 years after Ripken won AL Rookie of the Year: Gunnar Henderson is poised to win the award himself this year, playing 83 games at shortstop. He’s broken several of Ripken’s rookie franchise records, including runs (100) and extra base hits (66).
Does he see himself in Henderson? “Yes and no,” Ripken said with a laugh. He thinks the 22-year-old Alabama native has every tool one could want from an infielder. But he also believes Henderson should resemble him more in one key way: becoming the everyday shortstop (Ripken played short exclusively for 13 seasons).
“It doesn’t seem to bother him at all, the flip-flop from short to third, back and forth,” Ripken said. “I know today’s game, flexibility in your positions allows you to have more flexibility in lineups on a day-to-day basis. But I would like to see Gunnar play shortstop, to me, at one position. He can be a jack-of-all-trades, but I would like to see him be a master of one.”
Then again, one of the strengths of the Orioles organization is a roster of flexible, do-it-all infielders. In addition to Henderson and Jordan Westburg as young up-and-comers, the organization still has Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 prospect in all of the minors, who was most recently helping the Norfolk Tides win the Triple-A championship.
In that light, these Orioles likely have more runway than Ripken did as a young player. When he was a Rookie of the Year, a second-year MVP and a World Series winner, Ripken assumed “this would happen to me more and more.” But it would be 13 more years before he would be back in the postseason at all, at age 35. He can’t help but look on the careers of Atlanta’s Chipper Jones and the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, who both played for perennial playoff teams, and feel a little envy.
If he has a regret, it might be not getting to play enough in October. But with many of the Orioles under team control for years and many good prospects still to come, he recognizes that the pressure to win now won’t be overwhelming this fall.
“I enjoyed competing in that environment,” Ripken said. “But I don’t think any of them [the current Orioles] are gonna say, ‘OK, this might be my one and only moment,’ because it might not be.”
Still, he stresses, there are “no guarantees” that even the best-laid foundation will result in championship spoils. Ripken recently spoke with Aaron Hicks, the outfielder who is one of the few Orioles with postseason experience (this will be his sixth playoffs in the last seven years, all for the Yankees, who did not advance to the World Series in that span). The key, he put it to Hicks, is to play the same ball they have all year.
“If you allow yourself to think, ‘How many more people are watching us now all across the world?’ you can get yourself into a state where you might get out of control,” he said. “To me, just stay in the little bubble you’re in, keep playing the same way that you are each at-bat, each pitch, the same way in the field, and see how you come out.”
If these Orioles can keep coming through in tight spots and defying expectations, Iron Man knows: They’ve got a shot to join him in Baltimore sports immortality.
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Jackson Holliday’s surname.