Cal Ripken signs autographs

Appreciation: Cal Ripken signs autographs before yesterday's game against Toronto, after he announced his plans to retire at the end of this season. He has been playing regularly in the majors since 1982. (Sun photo by John Makely / June 20, 2001)

To label it simply as the end of an era is to vastly understate the relevance and sheer weight of Cal Ripken's pending retirement from the Orioles at the end of this season.

The link between the Orioles and the Ripkens is much, much more than just an era. Why, it's almost the entire history of the franchise.

Today, of all days, is for understanding that.

Cal Ripken Sr. signed with the organization out of Aberdeen High School in 1956, two years after the Browns moved from St. Louis and became Baltimore's major league team. The scout, Walter Youse, was looking for a catcher to play in the minors at Class D.

Since that signing, which went all but unannounced, not a day has dawned without the Orioles employing at least one Ripken, and often many more. Cal Sr. was a player, coach, instructor, scout, manager, groundskeeper, bus driver and fix-it man during more than three decades of service. Cal Jr. and Bill were players. Even Elly, the Ripkens' only daughter, worked scoreboards in the minor leagues in the 1970s.

The family and the team have spent 45 years in a row together in one way or another, forging perhaps the ultimate baseball marriage. And now it's ending.

Cal Sr. died in 1999. Bill is out of the game after playing 12 years in the major leagues. Cal Jr.'s pending departure, announced yesterday, represents the final break.

It signals much more than just the end of an era. It signals a new life for the Orioles - life without Ripkens.

A more profound change than anyone imagines, even now.

The Ripkens were what the Orioles were all about for so long, a family grounded in baseball's ways and means, respectful of the game and intensely devoted. Craftsmen above all.

Face of the franchise

Cal Jr. was the last and greatest link, evolving into the face of the franchise almost from the moment he started playing regularly in the majors in 1982. He was the player fans could relate to, embrace and accept, embodying what the Orioles had been in their glory years, solid and smart and unpretentious, a grinder who always found a way.

Rightly or not, he was the identifiable anchor fans held on to as the franchise lurched about in increasingly turbulent waters in the 1980s and 1990s, changing from a winner to a team that's gone 18 years without a trip to the World Series.

To so many fans, through good times and bad, the Orioles were Cal and Cal was the Orioles, and if nothing else about the team seemed familiar anymore, there was always that solid return on the investment of time and ticket money. The chance to watch Ripken play. The chance to see real baseball history.

Losing that will affect the franchise more than it knows. What are the Orioles, at this point, without Ripken? A faceless team working to avoid its fourth straight losing season. An organization trying desperately to prove itself and find a way.

A vessel without ballast.

To say that Ripken will be missed is to say, well, that keeping the warehouse up at Camden Yards was a good idea.

At the same time, subtracting the most famous player from their equation was a change the Orioles not only wanted, but also welcomed. It was time, quite plainly. Ripken, 40, is no longer nearly the player he was, yet he remains a legend whose every flinch is deemed newsworthy. He was far bigger than the team, in other words, and at odds with the club for some reason, as evidenced by his decision to inform the Washington Post of his decision to retire before he informed his teammates, manager and front office.

That was his call, and he made it, and he certainly can live with it, but it's an illustration of an agenda that, at the very least, is out of whack with that of a young team just trying to pull together.