The Streak obscures Orioles' sorry plight


Among the zillion or so media words that have been lavished on Cal Ripken's consecutive-games streak, some of my favorites came from WJZ-TV news anchor Denise Koch.

"I've lost track now," Koch said as she introduced sports guy Chris Eley live from Camden Yards before the Orioles game the other evening. "Do these games still count or are they just being played for Cal's streak?"

That's what you have to love about Denise Koch: She's not afraid to tell us what she doesn't know.

Her question was actually a very telling one.

Answer: Yes, these games now do count . . . sort of.

By screwing up this homestand royally, losing six out of seven now, the Orioles have all but eliminated themselves from the playoffs.

But, technically, the games count, though the Orioles are about as likely to win the wild-card spot as manager Phil Regan is to bench Ripken instead of allowing him to tie Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 tonight.

Somebody asked Ripken if he looks at the lineup card each night. Yes, he admitted, he does.

"Would you panic if your name were not in there?" Cal was asked.

"Not really," he said. "For one thing I'd figure it was a joke."

The Streak, which will allow Ripken to set a record tomorrow night, has thrown a lot of things off, the least of which is Denise

Koch's grasp of the Orioles' position in the, ahem, pennant race.

Streak coverage has been so overwhelming, so all-consuming, that it has clouded other important things.

One is that it has taken the public's minds off this club's terrible play.

That's all right with the club. It's still selling tickets. It's still interested in maintaining a successful image.

But if it weren't for The Streak, the fans would be enraged over yet another collapse by the Orioles.

They would have a right to be. Don't forget, the Orioles are the most disappointing club in the league. It's hard to believe that $43 million worth of talent could perform so poorly.

Instead of being angry over the plight of the Orioles, the public mood on this historic day is warm and fuzzy, thanks to Cal's streak.

Only an accomplishment like Ripken's could so pacify the fans. The Orioles haven't made the playoffs since 1983.

This is hard to believe, but it's true: Since Ripken's streak began on May 30, 1982, the Orioles' cumulative won-lost record has been under .500 (1,054-1,075).

That's hard to do when your defense is anchored by a rock-steady player like Ripken and when your offense is aided by the man who has hit more home runs (No. 320 yesterday) than any shortstop in major-league history.

Somehow, the Orioles have managed it.

When all this nice-nice stuff surrounding The Streak is over, the focus will be back on the ballclub and on the changes to be made for '96.

With a demanding owner like Peter Angelos, the Orioles are sure to make a lot of strong moves in the front office and on the field.

Another thing The Streak has clouded is, curiously, Ripken's career. Cal's father, Cal Sr., the former Orioles manager and coach, points this out.

"I hope," says the dad, "that the streak doesn't in some way take away from the other things Cal has accomplished in his career."

The elder Ripken spent 36 years in the Orioles' organization. He knows how one thing can obscure all else about a player.

He knows about Mickey Owen, who was a very good catcher but will always be remembered for one thing -- the passed ball that cost the Dodgers the '41 World Series.

Cal Sr., was around when Bill Buckner, a fine hitter, let an easy ground ball roll between his legs at first base, allowing the Mets to come back and beat Boston in Game 6 in '86. That's what Buckner will be remembered for.

Cal Jr., is much more than a streak, just as Lou Gehrig was. It's important to remember what he has done to get him 14 All-Star appearances.

He has endeared himself to the public by signing autographs for an hour or more after games. But if Cal had never signed an autograph, he'd still be a Hall of Fame man for the way he has conducted himself all these years.

The Streak is an important part of what Cal Ripken is. He has played more consecutive games at one position (2,102) than anyone in baseball history. That's Hall of Fame stuff right there.

Bobby Bonilla, a new Oriole, was asked if he thought Ripken's streak is a distraction to the club.

"I don't think so," he said. "It's exciting, it's good for baseball, and it's happening to a very nice man."

Players and managers from the Athletics and Mariners, and now the Angels, have been among the most enthusiastic in applauding Ripken as the number of games played is increased daily on the warehouse wall.

"I'd love to be here Wednesday night to see Cal set the record," Oakland skipper Tony La Russa said here last week, but of course he'll be in Boston managing his own club.

Yesterday there were two North Carolina women at Camden Yards who had driven here to see Ripken. They couldn't get tickets for tonight or tomorrow but they came anyway. What they said sums up Cal's obvious appeal.

"It's fantastic to see an athlete who cares about the fans the way he does," said Carolyn Lackey, who runs a hospital respiratory care department in Hickory. "It's great to see a player who doesn't mind going to work every day like the rest of us do."

"I like to watch Cal," said her friend, Alison Romano, "because he really enjoys playing the game."

"And," added Carolyn Lackey, "he does have great blue eyes."

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