Ripken completes circle: last great Memorial Oriole

At 5:31 p.m. he sprinted out of the dugout, the last great Oriole at Memorial Stadium, the last player to hit the field. In the end, the season to remember was his, and his alone. Here came Cal Ripken, the one link to the grand tradition, the one man with a sense of it all.

Ripken sensed the drama building, and now it was nearly over, this "Field of Dreams" sequence, his dream season. His powers of concentration are legend, but his head was spinning all weekend. In this glorious season, how else could he have gone 2-for-15 the final three games?


"I don't think you'd be human if it didn't distract you a little bit," Ripken said. "Yeah, my mind wandered. I tried to stay focused. It was something I was pretty good at all year. But I got outside of myself, tried to do more than I could. I couldn't help but think back."

Ripken, 31, recalled sitting in the stands as a teen-ager in 1979, chanting "Ed-die, Ed-die," with the rest of the crowd. He recalled being "very, very scared" his first Opening Day in '82, hitting a home run on his first swing, shaking his father's hand rounding third, sensing this incredible warmth.


He gets it. After growing up in Aberdeen, he grasps the tradition, understands his mission. Of the current Orioles, only Mike Flanagan can say the same. Flanagan, of course, is special, but Ripken is an icon. The last great Oriole at Memorial Stadium. The one true link.

Rarely in baseball does one player's excellence so distinguish him from his team. The sad part is, Ripken would be a lock for his second Most Valuable Player award if the Orioles hadn't lost 95 games. He still might win it, but the precedent isn't good.

Ernie Banks won the National League MVP despite playing for losing teams with the Chicago Cubs in '58 and '59. Andre Dawson won it playing for the last-place Cubs in '87. The AL award, however, has never gone to a player from a losing team.

"There's always going to be a controversy surrounding the voting of the MVP," Ripken said. "The MVP is someone who helps his team win. That's how I always understood it. I guess you can't make a good case for me. We really didn't have a good year."

No, they didn't. Yesterday marked the 43rd time the Orioles got behind by three or more runs in the first three innings. They went on to succumb meekly in a 7-1 loss to Detroit, and Ripken, of all people, grounded into a game-ending double play. "I'm only as good as my last at-bat," he said jokingly.

Hardly. He finished with a .323 average, 34 homers and 114 RBI, but those numbers don't begin to tell the entire story. Ripken's season was one of the greatest by a shortstop in major-league history. The last great Oriole at Memorial Stadium. Going out the right way.

Last year, Ripken batted a career-low .250 and finished with the same number of doubles as his light-hitting brother Bill (28). This year, he led the majors with 85 extra-base hits, becoming only the ninth AL player to reach that total in the past 50 years.

By going 0-for-4 yesterday, he just missed joining Fred Lynn as the only player since 1972 to bat .325 or better with 35 or more home runs. Saturday, he broke Frank Robinson's club record for most total bases in a season. Only six AL players have finished with as many (368) in the last 50 years.


"Cal's the first player I've ever seen do all that he did," said teammate Glenn Davis, a pretty fair hitter himself. "If there's ever been a model of consistency, it definitely was Cal. In my six years in the National League, I never saw anybody come close to what he has done this year."

So much for Ripken getting worn down by playing 1,573 consecutive games. So much for him needing protection in the )) lineup with Davis out almost all year. So much for all his critics monitoring his decline as one of the top offensive players in the game.

"It was exciting for me to watch Cal show his true potential," said Ripken's wife, Kelly, who endured four difficult seasons before this one. "Maybe it wasn't there in some people's eyes last year. But this year, it was, 'Hey, I proved you wrong, I'm still in there, I can do it.' "

Ripken, ever the stoic, would never put it quite like that. Why, during his season-ending news conference last night, he seemed downright serene. He smiled over and over again, but he couldn't help long for his old stadium, too. "It's kind of an empty feeling," he said.

It was a special weekend, a touching weekend, a Ripken weekend. Kids shrieked "Cal! Cal!" when he emerged from the dugout for a Home Team Sports interview 45 minutes before Saturday's game. A fan in an orange T-shirt and an Orioles cap stood near the rail and gave him a one-man standing ovation.

The "MVP!" chants erupted every time he batted the past two days, and Ripken admitted he simply was trying too hard. By the final ceremony it was all forgotten. Brooks came out first, then Frank, then all the others. Ripken was the last player on the field. He was followed only by Earl Weaver.


"I thought, 'That's a nice touch, that's a nice touch,' " Kelly Ripken said. She was right, of course, but who else deserved the honor? No one but the last great Oriole at Memorial Stadium. The one link to the grand tradition. The one man with a sense of it all.