Ripken on Orioles: "They're young, they're enthusiastic, they're talented"

The Orioles are holding their first workout this evening at Camden Yards in preparation for Saturday’s Division Series opener. The opponent to be named later. Game 1 to be played in Baltimore, the first time that the city has hosted in the postseason since Oct. 11, 2014.

The Royals scored twice in the top of the ninth against Darren O’Day and Zack Britton to win 6-4 and take a 2-0 lead in the Championship Series. They swept it by posting back-to-back 2-1 victories at Kauffman Stadium. The “We Won’t Stop” Orioles were grounded.

You know what happened in 2016. The wild card game in Toronto, the Edwin Encarnación three-run, walk-off homer against Ubaldo Jiménez in the 11th inning, Britton warmed but never used. The window for contention slamming shut and shattering.

One of the most vivid images is catcher Matt Wieters bolting from his crouch as soon as Encarnacion made contact and turning toward the visiting dugout. His own walk-off.

Anyway, that’s in the past.

It’s only advisable to go there if something positive blooms. For instance, a Hall of Famer offering his endorsement of the 2023 club that he’s watched often from his front-row seat at Camden Yards.

Cal Ripken Jr. is making more regular appearances, often staying until the end, venturing downstairs to the clubhouse area on a few occasions. He likes this team. He appreciates how it’s invigorated the fan base and the city.

"I think the characteristic of all teams that come together is what everyone tries to define as chemistry all the time, and it’s obvious they all enjoy each other, they enjoy their roles,” Ripken said this morning in a phone call.  “Everybody is contributing. And that's a really great feeling when that happens.

“I know everyone says on a winning team, it’s a new hero every night. With this team, they genuinely enjoy being around each other, they pull for each other. They come in, they assume a role, sometimes in a game where it might not be their comfort zone, but they make it happen. They're young, they're enthusiastic, they're talented. They're just fun to watch."

To say that a 101-win season was anticipated after the Orioles went 83-79 a year ago would be stretching the truth as if made out of Silly Putty. Perhaps take the next step rather than a giant leap. And there were some concerns about regression. But the best record in the American League?

“I think everyone was a little skeptical,” Ripken said. “I know I was overjoyed when they put it together, made a little bit of a playoff push last year, finished over .500, and my expectations were a little higher, but there’s no way you could think that they’re going to win 100 games and win the American League East. But as the season went on, the momentum built, their confidence built, they discovered different pieces that fit in in different ways, which has been wonderful to watch.

“Seeing Grayson (Rodriguez) after he came back, how confident he is and how well he’s pitching really gave me a boost. Gunnar Henderson’s development. I always liked him as a player. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast. He seems to understand the game. And he’s doing it at multiple positions So, he’s really fun. And (Adley) Rutschman, you can’t underestimate the value that he’s brought since he came to the big leagues and assumed the catching position. His impact on the pitching staff, his impact on the adjustments from pitch to pitch, have been pretty remarkable. That’s just a few guys.

“But no, I didn’t expect them to win the American League East. I was hoping they would push for a playoff spot.”

Ripken won a World Series in 1983, his second full season in the majors. He suffered through the 0-21 start in 1988 and was third in Most Valuable Player voting the following year after the Orioles shocked the baseball world by contending until the final weekend. He was the All-Star shortstop in 1996 and All-Star third baseman in 1997 when the Orioles made their last playoff appearances and posted their last winning records until 2012.

He searches his memory trying to find a comp to this year’s club. It’s safe to say he wasn’t on a roster with a No. 1 rated farm system pumping talent into it.

“Since we just got together for the ’83 team and we celebrated the 40th anniversary, you got a chance to go back and remember the makeup of your team,” Ripken said. “Storm Davis was a big contributor in that year, and Mike Boddicker. Allan Ramirez and a couple of other players had stepped in in the middle of that season and added from our system. But I think what was fun for me was the ’89 season, which became the ‘Why Not?’ season. The expectations were very low. We were the worst team in the league the year before, and to see the younger players that we had assembled blossom into being really good players, and us developing momentum, and we took it all the way down to that last series in Toronto, there were a lot of unexpected contributions that year.

“People overachieved. And we were young, with the exception of me. I guess I was 29, and everybody else seemed to be so much younger. And everybody just came to the ballpark every day with this sort of thought that we were going to win the game. And that’s the cool part about this Orioles team is, no matter what happens to them yesterday, their expectation is to come out and play well and win. They seem to build off their wins and build momentum, or if they lose they seem to shake that off really quickly. That’s a good trait for a team.”

Ripken played for nine different managers in 21 years, including his father – Earl Weaver, Joe Altobelli, Cal Ripken Sr., Frank Robinson, Johnny Oates, Phil Regan, Davey Johnson, Ray Miller and Mike Hargrove. Weaver came out of retirement in ’85. Ripken points out how Brandon Hyde served in a developmental role before rising to his current status, teaching the game and being patient through the thin times.

“And now he seems to have evolved to a really good strategist and utilizes his bullpen really well and utilizes everybody on the roster,” Ripken said.

“I’ve been impressed with Brandon. You never know from a strategy standpoint when you have a team that’s the caliber of this team right now what moves you have to make, and I think Brandon in a developmental sort of philosophy, you’re pushing your guys out there, you’re getting them experience, and sometimes it’s not always about the wins and losses in the game. Now, it’s about the wins and losses, and he’s been very impressive in his moves.”

The record wasn’t supposed to matter after Hyde’s hiring at the Winter Meetings in December 2018, when the news broke that a deal was done before pen actually hit paper. This was the continuation of the teardown and the start of an ugly rebuild – as if an attractive sort exists. But Hyde still had to walk into the clubhouse, face his players and demand full effort and an ability to tune out the noise, even if it came from the front office.

Be on board with the changes in philosophy, the dragging of a franchise into more modernized times, but never believe that losing was acceptable.

A balancing act performed by Hyde that could have earned him a circus gig.

“That’s how you develop a winning culture is by winning,” Ripken said. “There’s a fine line. My dad used to talk about the minor leagues. You’re developing players, and sometimes you’re leaving your pitcher out there so he can learn how to get through a tough situation for himself and for future benefit. And it might cost you a game here and there. But he said, when you start out the first part of the year in the minor leagues, you’re developing players, but as you develop players, they start performing and learning, and then the second half of the season’s always better than the first half.

“I don’t know what the analogy would be for the rebuilding process. If it’s a five-year rebuilding process, maybe it’s years in the making and then all of a sudden, the second half of your process, you really start to see results, and then people come together and you win. I really think you teach winning by winning, and your goal should be to play the game to have the better score at the end of the nine innings than the other team. And so, you never lose sight of that.

“Even when we went through our major rebuild and we lost all those games in a row, you try to reorganize your goals when you’re in the middle of that and you recognize what’s happening. But at the same time, you try to reorganize your goals to have a good month, a good second half, a good week. And you always want to keep in mind that you’re playing to win.

“I always thought it was easier playing for a winner because that becomes really clear. You come to the ballpark every day with the thought of, ‘What can I do to help us win today?’ When you’re on a losing side, sometimes you think a little bit more like an individual. You need to straighten out your swing, you need to get some hits, you need to drive in runs, maybe so your team can win. It seems to take the pressure off when you’re playing for a winner, that maybe you move a runner from second to third on a fly ball to right field, or maybe hit a ground ball, or maybe you bunt, or maybe you take the extra base. All those things that make you feel good when you win, that you’re contributing. When you’re losing, those things don’t seem to give you the same jolt.”

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