Cal Ripken's unbelievably blue eyes, the ones that have sparkled continually through 1,715 consecutive games, finally looked tired and worried on Sunday as he dragged his sore right ankle and his .239 batting average out of the Baltimore Oriole clubhouse 90 minutes after the end of a 1-for-11 weekend.
Most of his teammates were gone. They, too, had left dragging after a 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, their sixth defeat in their last seven games. What was supposed to be the Orioles' run at the American League East title had become a wind-sucking stumble of a home stand that featured a nine-RBI game by the New York Yankees' Danny Tartabull, a four-stolen-base night by Milwaukee's John Jaha and a 12-strikeout gem by the Brewers' Cal Eldred. By week's end Baltimore had fallen five games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.
It's kind of sad that a 1992 championship flag probably won't fly over spectacular Oriole Park at Camden Yards, site of 50 straight sellouts through Sunday. It has been a remarkable season for Baltimore's intriguing collection of retreads and No. 1 draft choices. Twelve more victories and the Orioles will become only the fourth team ever to win 90 games the year after a 95-loss season. Even if they don't catch the Blue Jays—the two teams play a three-game series in Baltimore on Sept. 22, 23 and 24—they have built themselves into contenders for years to come.
Ripken, 32, will very likely be a major contributor to those title chases, but this year it has been painful to watch him play. A cinch Hall of Famer who last season was the American League MVP and the game's best player, Ripken had only 10 home runs through Sunday, and he hadn't homered in his last 73 games, during which he hit .190. He remains the most sure-handed fielder in baseball, but a year full of injuries has slowed him at shortstop. Saturday night he made a rare throwing error because he couldn't push off his aching ankle. No one goes back better on a pop fly than Ripken, but on Sunday he even struggled doing that.
"Sometimes I look at him and still remember the first time I laid eyes on him, when he was six years old," says Baltimore manager John Oates. "But he's not six anymore, and he's not 24. I've seen him the last four years. This year he doesn't look the same."
Several factors may have contributed to the change Oates detects. Ripken concedes that this has been his "toughest year physically." The pain lingers from having been hit on the left elbow by Toronto's Jack Morris on April 11 and in the back by the Minnesota Twins' John Smiley on July 3. But maybe the distraction of his contract negotiations has also hurt. He signed a five-year, $30.5 million deal on Aug. 24, but the five months of haggling that led to that signing interfered with his focus. Or maybe he has been worn out by The Streak. Playing 1,715 consecutive games is an admirable feat, but eventually it must wear a guy down. Ripken has started all but 27 of those games at shortstop (he has finished 1,675) while pursuing Lou Gehrig's major league record of playing in 2,130 straight games.
Oates thinks Ripken might be physically spent, so he's considering options for 1993, like occasionally using Ripken as a DH or pinch hitter. "It's too late for this year, but I want to prevent this from happening next year," says Oates. "I've done research on Gehrig's streak. One game he was in the lineup at shortstop, batted in the top of the first, and then they took him out. Why couldn't I do that with Rip? If we're on the road on a Wednesday, we're off Thursday, I could give him an at bat in the first, take him out, send him back to the hotel.
"I'm not big enough to end something that he has worked 11 years for," says Oates. "It's important to him, to me, to Baltimore, to the club, to baseball. But it's not so important that I can put it ahead of the team. I'm just trying to keep him strong for the long run. I don't want to taint the streak, but I want to make sure he and Lou are playing by the same rules. Lou played a 154-game schedule, mostly on the East Coast. We play 162 all over the place. With the demands on Rip's time, I'm guessing that his 1,700 games are comparable to Lou's 2,100."
Although he clearly wants to keep the streak alive, Ripken says, "If I couldn't play, I wouldn't play. It's not so important that I would play one inning, then come out. I wouldn't just continue it for the streak's sake. A day off won't mean I'm physically refreshed. It would provide a mental break, but not a physical break."'
Oates says any move that could taint the streak would be discussed with Ripken. And if Ripken doesn't agree? "I'm the manager," says Oates. "Like a parent, sometimes you have to say, You can't."