Ripken on the Orioles and Thursday's ceremony

With the Orioles having at least a share of first place in September for the first time since 1997, it seems appropriate that Cal Ripken Jr. will be at Camden Yards twice in the next four days.

Ripken will be on hand Thursday for the unveiling of his statue in the picnic area and for the on-field ceremony that follows. And he'll be in the TBS broadcast booth on Sunday, making his debut providing analysis with former Braves pitcher John Smoltz.

They'll talk about the playoff race, and the Orioles will be included in the discussion for the first time since that wire-to-wire season in '97. Go figure.

"September and tied for first place," Ripken said during our phone conversation this morning. I could almost hear him shaking his head in disbelief.

"It's been a really great team to watch. Sometimes, I turn on the TV and go, 'Where did he come from?' And some of the young pitchers in the second half have figured it out. And there's this momentum, the close games, the one-run games, when they can turn it over to the bullpen. The starters have been allowing them to do that, and when that happens, you've got a really good chance."

It's natural to start making comparisons to the "Why Not?" team in 1989. Maybe this year's team could be "Why Now?"

"That particular team definitely had momentum and confidence that the young players picked up as the season went on," Ripken said. "You watch this group, there's a bunch of All-Star players in the regular lineup, but guys are contributing all over the place. And there's the magic of the close games. It's been exciting to watch.

"There's the old argument that says there's no momentum in baseball because it changes each day with a new pitcher and a new set of circumstances, but so much of this game is played with confidence and figuring out how to compete and execute. Once you get the competing and execution down, your confidence carries over from day to day, especially in one-run games. When things go right and you're winning those one-run games, when you get in a situation in the eighth inning when the game's tied, you feel comfortable. You've been there. But when things don't go well, you start thinking about how it could go wrong. I think that's a factor, especially in one-run games and extra-inning games."

Cal-Ripken_Sidebar.gifThough he monitors the Orioles from a distance, catching games on television when his schedule permits it, Ripken is aware that some of the numbers are "different" for a team in contention, a reference to the minus-19 run differential.

"I know it's changed a little bit in the last couple of weeks, but giving up more runs than you score is not normally a formula for winning 95 games or so," he said. "That's amazing in many ways. Winning the one-run games and extra-inning games, their ridiculous record after the seventh inning. That puts things in perspective there.

"I just thought when they added the extra wild card and how the team was coming around, they had a chance to get back to .500 and maybe compete for the extra wild card spot. But they seem to have hit their stride right now. They're scoring runs. Nick Markakis is hitting in the leadoff spot, and he's got a really great eye at the plate. He's swinging the bat exceptionally well. He's got a good on-base percentage. And Mark Reynolds is getting hot in the way he can get hot. People get on him about the strikeouts, but when he's right, he can hit home runs and hit big home runs. And I love J.J. Hardy anchoring the middle infield. And I think Manny Machado has done a really nice job of stabilizing the overall defense."

There's also manager Buck Showalter and his handling of a bullpen that's been among the best in baseball.

"If you remember, Buck built a number of good contending teams," Ripken said. "You go back to New York, you go back to Arizona, you go back to Texas. He just didn't stay around for the final piece. I think he was the architect getting the bullpen the way it was in New York, and using people in roles they can be really successful in. For me, personally, facing the Yankees, if you had a key third at-bat in the game, maybe in the sixth or seventh inning, you'd get Jeff Nelson. And if it was a lefty, you'd get Mike Stanton for a while, and then Mariano Rivera. And before that, it was Rivera and John Wetteland.

"Everybody makes a big deal about the specialization of the bullpens, but it's still about managing it and having the ability to use them consistently and knowing when to get them in games. And he's always been good at that. I know (Pedro) Strop had a little bit of wildness in New York, but he's pretty much been lights out. Buck stays pretty close to their roles."

Just don't use the "R" word around him.

Ripken is looking forward to Thursday's statue unveiling and another chance to be with friends and members of his Orioles family. He's only missed one ceremony, for Frank Robinson, because of a previous commitment.

"When the concept and the idea first came out, I thought it was a really great idea," he said. "I don't know who gets ownership of the idea. I think it's Mr. Angelos. I thought it was a wonderful idea and concept because it really does make that connection to the Orioles' rich history. To actually go and watch the ceremonies and listen to the speeches, it's a very emotional time. All those stories come out, and people enjoy that connection to the rich Orioles past. I think it's fantastic. I'm sorry I missed Frank's, but I've been able to attend all the others and they're special times.

"At Eddie (Murray's), I personally had a special time. It rained a lot and made the night much longer, but we were all OK with that. It gave us more time to be together. I actually got trapped in the dugout for a while when it started raining hard again, and I really enjoyed sitting down there. It was like old times, watching the rain from dugout."

Ripken is putting the finishing touches on his latest speech, which must come naturally to him. It seems like he's given 2,131 of them. This one may challenge him a little more, though, because "it's not just about me," he said.

"I figure watching everyone else, people are pretty good at speaking on the cuff. Jim (Palmer) can talk forever. Eddie was pretty funny in his remarks. It's an opportunity to say something. I've been playing around with it for little while."

Showalter will attend the ceremony, as he's done with the others, and he'll encourage his players to soak in the moment, to listen closely to another Hall of Famer's insight. Take advantage of these rare opportunities.

"Buck is doing a really nice job of connecting the Orioles' history with the current guys," Ripken said. "He really understands that. It's not just showing up. There's real meaning in it."

Just as there's real meaning to the stories that will circulate again at Camden Yards before the Orioles begin their four-game series with the Yankees.

"It's about playing for the Orioles and being part of a community, and those stories are just a wonderful reminder of the success and the rich history," Ripken said. "It's good baseball stuff. It's a good reminder that the Orioles have significance in the history of baseball and it's alive and well with all those guys around. And this group is making their own history, and that's really cool to see."

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