Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cal Ripken's Predictable Greatness

An appreciation for No. 8 as he heads to the Hall

By Matthew Taylor

The following memory came to mind as I prepare to visit Cooperstown for Cal's Hall of Fame induction ...

Cal’s 2,131st consecutive game stands out among baseball accomplishments in many ways. One of the record’s simple beauties is that it was predictable. We knew entering the 2005 season that, barring serious injury and/or weather-related cancellations, Cal would break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak on Sept. 6, 1995. Rarely is a historical baseball moment so predictable. For one season the game, like the player, gave us just what we expected.

I gained a greater appreciation for the predictability of Cal’s consecutive games record four years later when I attempted to be in the seats for the Iron Man’s 400th home run, a considerably less-knowable effort.

Cal hit home run No. 399 on Sunday, July 25, 1999, in an 8-7 victory over the (then) Anaheim Angels. Thirty-five games later, on Sept. 2, 1999, Cal homered in an 11-6 victory over the Devil Rays to reach the 400 mark. Cal always saved his greatest work for the month of September.

Sixteen of the 35 games between home runs 399 and 400 were played at Camden Yards. The game during which I thought Cal would go deep was a Thursday afternoon contest on July 29 against the Texas Rangers. I played hooky from work to see it happen. It wasn’t the Devil who made me do it; it was Ken Rosenthal.

I’ve written before about my rocky parasocial relationship with Rosenthal, the one-time Sun columnist who suggested on multiple occasions that Cal needed to end The Streak. However, on the morning of July 29, 1999, Rosenthal’s column did more to entice than incite. I can’t track down the original piece, but my memory of Rosenthal’s sentiments remains vivid.

Rosenthal painted a beautiful baseball portrait. When better for Cal to hit his 400th home run than today, the writer asked rhetorically, on a beautiful afternoon at Camden Yards, right before the team heads out on a six-game road trip? Baseball lore suggests he’ll do it before a home crowd. Today could be the day. Today will be the day. You don’t want to miss it.

Before that Thursday I had skipped work for baseball only once, on Oct. 15, 1997, Game 6 of the ALCS. (Skipping school is another story.) The Orioles lost 1-0 to Cleveland in extra innings, but it was well worth it. So, on July 29, I decided once more to ditch work and head to the ballpark.

In the bottom of the 3rd, Cal, batting seventh, strode to the plate to lead off the inning. The Birds trailed by a run. In keeping with baseball etiquette, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded the archetypal hometown hero. I, like 43,710 others around me, desperately wanted to witness baseball history.

Almost on cue, Cal ripped a screaming drive into the shadows of the left field line. From my upper deck seat I couldn’t tell if the ball had cleared the fence, which only heightened the sense of anticipation.

Go to war, Miss Agnes?”

More like, “Go to second base, Mr. Ripken.”

Cal’s shot fell inches short of the seats. Instead of his 400th career home run, we were treated to his 22nd double of the season. It was his only hit of the day on a 1-for-3 afternoon.

More than a month later Cal hit the first of his final 32 career home runs, No. 400 of 431. My cousin, who rarely attends O’s games in person, was at Camden Yards that night. A stranger at a Westminster gas station randomly gave him his ticket.

Cal Ripken is one of only seven players to record 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. The latter achievement happened at home, as did games 2,130 and 2,131 of his consecutive games streak. I wasn’t at the ballpark for any of those history-making moments.

Nevertheless, I did witness many of Cal’s great nights at the ballpark during his 21-year career. Considering that the Iron Man is defined most by his consistency and workmanlike efforts, this seems fitting.

Thanks for the memories, Cal. All of them.

Read more fan memories in The Sun's special "Honoring the Iron Man" section.

What's It Worth To You?

It's difficult to determine the value of Ripken merchandise

By Matthew Taylor

I thought that baseball memorabilia was supposed to become more valuable over time, but a visit to E-Bay suggests otherwise.

The Cal Ripken rookie card, which I have at home, is apparently worth much less than the 2,131 bobbleheads they distributed for free at the ballpark on Tuesday.

Three bobbleheads (1, 2, 3) have already been auctioned for $58, $61, and $66, respectively. Meanwhile, the rookie card, valued at less than $20 at the time of this posting, has a lot of catching up to do.

Friday, July 20, 2007

When We Were Winning - July 20, 1997

Cal's ejection reflects frustration of slumping Birds

by Matthew Taylor

It was too soon to panic in Charm City, but Birds fans were panicking nonetheless. The O's first place lead over the Yankees, which stood at eight games on July 4, was down to 3.5 games after the Orange and Black dropped a brutal 10-2 decision to the White Sox on July 20, 1997. It was Baltimore's 10th loss in 13 games.

O's starter
Shawn Boskie, in his penultimate Major League season, gave up seven runs and 10 hits in just five innings pitched. Overall, the White Sox pounded out 19 hits against the Birds.

The O's avoided the shutout in the 9th inning when Tony Tarasco - whose name will forever be linked with Jeffrey Maier after the prior season's ALCS - hit a two-run homer off Chicago starter Jaime Navarro. Navarro went the distance and sent 47,800 fans at Camden Yards home unhappy.

Perhaps the most notable event for Birds fans was Cal Ripken's ejection for arguing balls and strikes in the bottom of the second inning. It was the third and final time during The Streak that Cal would be ejected from a game.

As good teams tend to do, the Birds followed the loss with a win streak. The team won nine of its next 10 games to extend its Division lead over the Yankees to six games by July 31. This was, after all, the Wire-to-Wire season.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Remember the Maine!

If only John Maine was Cuban. Or still pitching in Baltimore.

By Christopher Heun

He was a throw-in, along with Jorge Julio, in the deal for Kris Benson 18 months ago. But all John Maine has done since then is become one of the better pitchers in the National League.

Maine’s 2.91 ERA is fifth best in the Senior Circuit. Only two other NL pitchers have won more games. Those numbers would be even better if not for a poor start last Friday night, which Mets manager Willie Randolph attributed to too much rest over the All Star break.

I keep thinking this is all a mirage, that Maine can’t really be this good. As a frustrated Orioles fan, I wait for him to implode, but it hasn’t happened yet.

I thought the unraveling might have begun during his start last month in Los Angeles when he gave up three consecutive home runs, the final blow coming off the bat of the pitcher, no less.

But he’s kept rolling along. The New York Post proclaimed on its back page July 6: “Maine Reigns.”

Even dating back to last season, when Maine started Game 1 of the NL Division Series, he benefited from a base-running gaffe when two Dodgers were thrown out at the plate on the same play.

He followed that by out-pitching Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, throwing 5 1/3 shutout innings.

It would sound like sour grapes to say he’s been getting lucky. (Or to point out that Mets general manager turned around and traded Julio for Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, thus getting two starting pitchers for Benson, who will not toss a single pitch this season for the Orioles because of torn rotator cuff).

But I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: Maine has been a recipient of good fortune this season. Only three other pitchers have held their opponents to a lower batting average. Someone more stats-wise than me explains the importance of this here.

Suffice it to say, “Pitchers with abnormally high or low BABIPs [batting average on balls in play] are good bets to see their performances regress to the mean.” In the case of Maine, that means an escalating ERA.

Whether or not Maine tanks the rest of the season or not, he has turned into a useful major league pitcher in Queens. The Orioles were wrong to trade him.

The Orioles front office deserves credit for recognizing the talents of Jeremy Guthrie, who’s stepped into the starting rotation this year and performed beyond expectations after the Indians gave up on him.

But the same guys in The Warehouse gave up on Maine. Maybe he’s just been lucky the past year and a half and it’s no big loss. I admit it: the Orioles fan in me wants to see Maine fail. Or have him back in Camden Yards and getting lucky.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

O's Have All-Star History On Their Side

Team's All-Star Game record is rarely discussed

By Matthew Taylor

Sure, Ichiro hit the first inside-the-park home run in All-Star Game history on Tuesday, but did you see the Brian Roberts walk that started the rally?

It's a stretch for even the most dedicated Birds fan to brag on the O's after the 2007 All-Star Game ... even if Roberts did earn the AL's only base on balls and set the table for Ichiro ... but if you want to talk All-Star history, well, that's a different story. Prepare to pound your Orange and Black chest, my Bird-loving friend.

Browsing through the All-Star stats at reveals that O's players have won the All-Star Game MVP award most often in Major League history, a total of six times altogether: Brooks Robinson in 1966, Frank Robinson in 1971, Cal Ripken in 1991 & 2001, Roberto Alomar in 1998, and Miguel Tejada in 2005. Three teams are tied for second behind the Orioles with five MVP awards: the Giants, Reds, and Dodgers.

The O's might have had company in the All-Star record book had Barry Bonds put on more of a show this year for the local fans in San Francisco. Instead, the Birds stand alone.

Interestingly enough, three Orioles have been named the All-Star MVP during the team's current run of losing seasons - Alomar in '98, Ripken in '01, and Tejada in '05 - which speaks to the game's role as a showcase of individual talent.

MLB's showcase of team ability doesn't happen until October, and, needless to say, no Oriole has taken home the MVP hardware from those games in quite some time.

After all, there's no "O" in team.

Update (7/12/07): Wayward O has posed an interesting question in response to this posting (see "Comments" below).

It turns out that Cal is the only player to earn the All-Star MVP award in two different decades. The other repeat winners are Willie Mays ('63 & '68), Steve Garvey ('74 & '78), and Gary Carter ('81 & '84).

Ken Griffey, Jr., and his father earned the All-Star MVP in two different decades, Senior in 1980 and Junior in 1992. Bobby Bonds earned the award in 1973, but - Are we beating up on Barry too much? - his son still hasn't won the All-Star MVP.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Lowest of The Low

No, we’re not talking about Jay Gibbons’ batting average

By Christopher Heun

The Orioles have never been lower as an organization than they are right now.

That might seem like hyperbole, since the roster probably has more talent than five or six years ago and the farm system has improved since then.

But the results on the field haven’t changed in a decade. And the people making the decisions (or is it just one person, Uncle Peter?) haven’t learned from their mistakes.

They’ve fired their manager (for the third time in four seasons) but couldn’t convince the only guy they wanted as a replacement, Joe Girardi, to accept the job.

Just the thought of changing the manager proves that The Warehouse doesn’t get it: even with Earl Weaver at the helm, the Orioles are a bad ball club. They’re not a little luck and one big free agent signing away from contention. Not even close. Not when they can’t play .500 ball.

The only player on the roster who sensibly could be traded for meaningful prospects, Miguel Tejada, broke his wrist and won’t play again until after the July 31 trade deadline has passed.

If Peter Angelos really has accepted the need for a single person to be in charge of all baseball decisions, then he could have picked someone with success building a team from within. The man he named president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, has admitted he couldn’t develop position players in his 12 years in Chicago.

Breaking up the roster and acquiring as much young talent as possible is the only way the Birds will become contenders. But no one in The Warehouse seems to realize that. Otherwise, Tejada would have been traded long ago.

On top of that, two young pitching prospects who were supposed to blossom this season have spent most of their time on the disabled list. Adam Loewen is done for the year and Hayden Penn is turning into the second coming of Carl Pavano.

Daniel Cabrera, the third young arm always mentioned in the same breath as Loewen and Penn as the rotation of the future, has an ERA over 5.00. He's fully embraced his fate as the reincarnation of Bobby Witt.

In mid June, before Perlozzo was sent packing, I thought it couldn’t get any worse after the Birds were swept at home by the supposedly inferior Nats. Then they lost three more games, pushing their losing streak to eight. Then they fell into last place and 12 games under .500. Then Perlozzo was fired and the star player broke his wrist.

To be fair, newcomers Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Burres have stepped into the starting rotation and performed well, though much of their work has been wasted because of poor run support. Only two teams in the American League have scored fewer runs; only three have a lower slugging percentage.

No one should expect that to change anytime soon (Who’s excited about two more years of Aubrey Huff?) The only hitting prospect playing above Single A, outfielder Nolan Reimold, hasn’t played in nearly two months because of a strained oblique muscle. Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters, whom the Orioles drafted earlier this summer, will instantly become the club’s best minor league hitter once his agent, Scott Boras, allows him to sign a contract.

Some fans are holding their breath for Mark Texiera, a free agent after next season. Rather than meet the Rangers’ asking price in a trade, the Orioles would be wise to save their prospects and hope for the best once the first baseman hits the open market.

The good thing about hitting rock bottom is there’s no way to go but up. Now that the Birds have nestled into familiar territory, 10 games under .500, the bullpen will get better and some one-run games may go their way for a change. Even during their losing streak last month, they weren’t getting blown out.

The harder trick will be getting anything more valuable than AA relievers in return for mediocre veterans that predominate the Orioles roster. That’s a topic better left for another day.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

When We Were Winning - July 3, 1997

A recap of the O's most recent winning season

By Matthew Taylor

Even with the Birds' stirring victory last night, times are tough in Baltimore. But things haven't always been this bad.

As the O's head toward their 10th straight losing season, Roar from 34 will periodically take a look back at the team's most recent winning campaign, the 1997 Wire-to-Wire run. The "When We Were Winning" series is a reminder that things do change, and they hopefully will - for the better - with the Orioles.

Even just a decade ago - on July 3, 1997 - the game looked much different than it does today. The Tigers were in the AL East and still played in Tiger Stadium. The team was working on its fourth of 12 straight losing seasons.

Other franchises that are winning now but struggled then included the Red Sox (38-45, 17 games behind the O's in the East), the Twins (36-46, 7.5 out in the Central), and Oakland (36-50, 15 out in the West).

Here's what happened back in 1997, "When We Were Winning" ...

Twelve was the magic number for the Birds on July 3, 1997, as Jimmy Key picked up his 12th win of the season against the Detroit Tigers and Jeffrey Hammonds hit his 12th home run to power the O's to a 10-1 victory.

Key pitched eight strong innings, giving up five hits and only one run. Hammonds went 3-for-5, adding two doubles on top of his home run, with four RBIs. He also played all three outfield positions, not at the same time.

With the win the Birds' record stood at 54-27, putting them 7.5 games up on the hated Yankees. The Tigers fell to 38-43, dropping them to fourth place in the NL East, a game ahead of the last place Red Sox.

Attendance for the game at Tiger Stadium was 13,209.

Yankee Opponents: Hot or Not?

Jeter's explanation for his team's struggles doesn't add up

By Matthew Taylor

It appears that Derek Jeter doesn't read Roar from 34. I know, I'm just as surprised as you are. If Jeter did read RF34 he would know better than to make the
following statement after Sunday's loss to the A's.

"It seems like every team that's playing us is playing pretty good. You try to stay positive but, yeah, it gets frustrating."
We already debunked the myth(s) surrounding New York's June winning streak, but now we're going to have to re-visit the topic.

The truth is exactly the opposite of Jeter's claim that "every team that's playing us is playing pretty good."

Consider that the A's had
lost six of seven games headed into their series this past weekend against the Yankees. Or what about the Colorado Rockies? After sweeping the Yankees the Rockies went on an eight-game losing streak. San Francisco won two of three against New York and then promptly lost two of three to the Padres. And any O's fan can tell you that times have been, shall we say, a bit tough in Baltimore of late. The list goes on.

It's not just individual anecdotes that undermine Jeter's theory. Consider the combined June record of the Yankees' opponents last month: 105-136, a .435 winning percentage. Only three of the teams New York played in June had a winning record in the month: Arizona (15-13), Colorado (14-13), and Oakland (14-13). Clearly, the Yankees were losing to teams in June that were not playing very good baseball.

It all adds up to more myth making in the Bronx.

June records of Yankee opponents

Arizona: 14 – 13

Baltimore: 8 -17

Boston: 13 – 14

Chicago: 10 – 18

Colorado: 14 – 13

New York: 12 – 15

Oakland: 15-13

Pittsburgh: 10 – 15

San Francisco: 9 – 18

Combined record of Yankee opponents: 105 – 136

Monday, July 02, 2007

All-Star is Lone Star for Orioles

Roberts will go it alone in San Francisco

by Matthew Taylor

Congrats to Brian Roberts, who made the AL All-Star roster via the Player Ballot. He's the O's lone All-Star representative.

The Orioles official MLB website
makes the case for Roberts:

"Roberts went into Sunday's game ranked first among his positional peers in on-base percentage (.412) and second in batting average (.326). As if that's not enough of a case, only one other American League second baseman with at least 200 at-bats had a higher slugging mark (.454). Roberts also leads the league with 25 stolen bases."

Dayn Perry of Fox Sports thinks Roberts should be starting instead of Placido Palanco.

Meanwhile, CBS Sportsline lists Jeremy Guthrie among its
All-Star snubs.

Says Guthrie: "If you look around, there's a number of starters and relievers who are having really big years. It's just good to be considered."

By any measure, the AL pitching staff is a tough rotation to crack.