Hard lesson: learning to lose

It didn't matter if it were cards, pingpong, tape ball or clubhouse wrestling, Cal Ripken liked to win. So did the handful of holdovers from the team's glory years -- Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, Mike Boddicker and Tippy Martinez. As long as they had been playing baseball, they were winners.

But 1986 was the year they learned to lose.

"I knew nothing but winning all the way from Little League up though 1985," McGregor said. "I think it was the same thing with a lot of these guys. We didn't know how to do that."

Ripken always did what it took to win -- switching positions, playing every day -- but there was nothing he could do to keep the 1986 Orioles from losing. They had too many problems: an impatient owner (Edward Bennett Williams), a maligned superstar (Murray) and an uninspired manager (Earl Weaver).

Within three months, Murray went from team leader to team malcontent. In June, he was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career, with a pulled hamstring. Two months later, Williams wounded Murray emotionally by telling the press Murray was "doing nothing." Williams apologized. Murray asked for a trade. The first baseman's relationship with the team never was the same.

The burden fell on Ripken.

"When Eddie went down, Ripken was the man," said Murray's replacement, Jim Traber. "He was the guy everybody kind of looked to."

Ripken's leadership carried the Orioles through July. He hit .379 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs that month, his best of the season.

The team bottomed out after an Aug. 6 game at Memorial Stadium. The Orioles hit two grand slams in the same inning and lost. The Texas Rangers hit one and won, 13-11.

Entering that contest two games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox, the Orioles fell into a 14-42 skid. The worst two days came in back-to-back doubleheaders in Oakland. The Orioles lost all four games, even though they held ninth-inning leads in two of them.

"We used to find ways to lose," said McGregor, a pastor at Rock Church in Dover, Del. "We'd never been on a team like that before."

Ripken never had been on a major-league loser. And he never had been a leader. The difference between leading a winning team and leading a losing team was enormous.

"Everybody starts pressing at that point," McGregor said. "He was pressing because he had to carry it."

Ripken batted .250 in August and .254 in September and October. It really didn't matter. The Orioles finished last in the American League East and 22 games out of first place with a 73-89 record. It was their first losing season in the history of divisional play, their first losing season in 19 years and their first losing season under Weaver. Weaver wasn't really into managing in 1986. He had returned the year before from retirement only out of respect for Williams and because the owner offered him such a lucrative contract. The thrill for Weaver and for his former players was gone.

"He didn't have the fire he used to have, and we didn't have the team we used to have," McGregor said.

Ripken's on-field professionalism never suffered. Neither did his offensive numbers (.282, 25 home runs, 81 RBIs). His attempts at leadership continued.

"Sometimes he was a silent leader, sometimes he was a vocal one," said Traber, a sports radio talk show host in Oklahoma City.

Ripken's enjoyment came in the clubhouse. McGregor remembers Ripken always was creating a new clubhouse game, games that usually involved roughhousing and that the bigger and stronger Ripken usually won.

"Cal was a big kid," McGregor said.

The kid, now 26, no longer was a kid. And the Orioles, with only four players remaining from their two recent World Series appearances, no longer were a winning team.

The future was bleak -- the Orioles finished four of the next five seasons with losing records. The past was glorious -- Ripken and the others clung to it.

"We had fun, but it could never be nearly as much fun as when we were winning," McGregor said. "We all knew when we went on the field, it wasn't as much fun as it used to be."

Season Highlights

  • Leads major-league shortstops in home runs, RBIs, runs and slugging average for the fourth straight season.
  • Ties for the American League lead with Toronto's George Bell and New York's Don Mattingly with 15 game-winning RBIs.
  • Leads shortstops in assists (482) for the third time in four years.
  • Finishes second among American League shortstops in fielding by .001 to Tony Fernandez.
  • Ties his career high with a 17-game hitting streak (June 5 through June 21).
  • Has his most productive month in July, batting .379 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs.
  • Starts for the American League All-Star team for the third straight year.
  • Leads Orioles in home runs for the first time, ending Eddie Murray's six-year string.
  • For the first time in his major-league career, walks more than he strikes out.
  • Steals a then-career-best four bases.
  • Leads Orioles in eight offensive categories.

Stats Line

Year .282 162 627 98 177 35 1 25 81 70 60 4 13
Career .289 830 3210 529 927 183 20 133 472 313 417 11 105

The year in baseball . . .

  • Boston right-hander Roger Clemens, who wins the American League MVP and Cy Young awards, strikes out a record 20 batters against Seattle on April 29.
  • Dave Henderson (right) pulls the Red Sox from the brink of elimination by hitting a two-out, two-run homer off Donnie Moore in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the AL Championship Series.
  • Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson taps a slow roller through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner to score the winning run in Game 6 of the World Series. The Mets go on to win the series.
  • Jose Canseco is the AL Rookie of the Year.

. . . and the world

  • Six astronauts and school teacher Christa McAuliffe die in the Challenger shuttle disaster.
  • Maryland basketball star Len Bias dies of cocaine intoxication.
  • The United States bombs Libya.
  • The Pride of Baltimore sinks and four drown.
  • Bruce Springsteen's "Live 1975-85" has an advance order of 1.5 million.
  • Barbra Streisand sings in public for the first time in six years.
  • Debi Thomas becomes the first African-American figure skater to win a national title.