Ripken reflects on 1989’s “Why Not?” season

The slogan came late to the future Hall of Famer. One of the most detail-oriented players in baseball history, so precise that he wore a watch during batting practice and infield drills, somehow missed it.

Cal Ripken Jr. can laugh about it now.

A collection of players from the 1989 “Why Not?” Orioles are gathering this weekend at Camden Yards to celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the most beloved teams in franchise history. An all-time favorite, tipping the popularity scale, in spite of a second-place finish.

No one saw it coming after the historic 0-21 start in 1988 and the 107 losses.

“I think we took it in stride,” Ripken said. “We all liked being around each other. There was a good sense of team unity and chemistry on that team. We enjoyed being there.”

“Why Not?” became a rallying cry, printed on signs and T-shirts. Ripken liked it once he became aware.

The guy with the watch was a little late to the party.

“I remember feeling like the last person to know when somebody coined the phrase ‘Why not?’” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Well that’s pretty clever,’ but that was like way late in the season and I’m sure it happened earlier than that. It made me turn my head going, ‘God, am I the only one who didn’t know about that?’”

Everyone remembers the loss in Toronto in the penultimate game and the season ending with the Blue Jays 89-73 and the Orioles 87-75. The outcome didn’t sour fans. They just embraced the team a little harder.

“I think going from worst to first and worst in the sense where you lose 21 games to start the season, I think that was virtually non-existent at the time,” Ripken said. “I know there’s been some other examples since then, where actually gone from worst to first. When people were talking about it then, it was really unusual that that sort of thing could happen and happen that fast. It was an exciting team to watch. I think everybody liked the different personalities on the team. It was a fun team.

“It was a mix of people - good, young people who would run through a wall. I think Steve Finley tried to run through a wall on opening day. That sort of mentality. They tried hard, they put out, they played with emotion. But then the results came and the results came quick and it was easy to kind of get caught up in that fever.”

The carriage carrying the team didn’t turn into a pumpkin until a 3-1 lead heading into the eight inning vanished in a must-win game.

Cal-Ripken_Sidebar.gif“I guess coming off the ‘88 season the expectations were pretty low,” Ripken said. “There was a youthful sort of enthusiasm around that team, but I had no idea that it would translate into success. Especially that fast. If you look at us on paper it didn’t seem like we were competitive, at least not yet. We had potential people that turned out to be good big league players, but at the time we didn’t know.

“And so almost from opening day when we beat the Red Sox, I think (Craig) Worthington hit that sac fly, there was sort of a hopeful attitude that just started to build off of things like that. Then as we had little pieces of success we found ourselves with no pressure, in first place halfway through the season and chugging along pretty good.

“The expectations to me, I couldn’t figure out why this was happening. But it was fun to see. The outfield defense was making sliding catches, diving catches. The defense was turning out. We were winning some close ballgames. So if you’re thinking if momentum actually exists, the ‘89 team is an example that some of these little things early on built on some sort of momentum and a belief that was matched with some talent that put us in a good position all season.”

Too bad that it couldn’t be sustained.

The Orioles finished 76-85 and in fifth place in 1990. Why?

“The magic that happened in that particular year, the expectations of the pitching ... ” Ripken said. “Bob Milacki won 14 games. Dave Johnson came up, had been around with a couple different teams and he contributed. Pete Harnisch did pretty well. Jeff Ballard should have won 20 games that year.

“In some ways it was a little bit like, ‘How are we doing this? How are those pitchers keeping us in the ballgame when we have a lead?’ Because we were pretty good in close ballgames and we were pretty good defensively. And offensively we weren’t bad. But I think the expectations for the pitching wasn’t really there and there was a lot of what was thought of as overachieving.

“Dave Johnson was a real big breath of fresh air. He came in and had his little sinker and mixture of breaking balls and he managed baserunners really well. Did a lot of little things right. Fielded his position really good. So it took the pressure off anybody on the starting staff. And Ballard was really good that year. And I do remember ‘Big Bird,’ Milacki, he won in the teens that year. He was a big part of that, gave us some innings. But it was unexpected performances from the starting staff and any team that’s going to be competitive, you’ve got to have the nucleus of a starting staff keeping you in the ballgame regularly.”

Beyond Ripken’s participation in the weekend celebration at Camden Yards and his many endeavors, including ownership of the short-season Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds, he’s also enjoying son Ryan’s climb to Double-A Bowie as a first baseman and designated hitter.

Ryan, 26, signed with the Orioles in March 2017 and played in Aberdeen. He spent the following summer at low Single-A Delmarva and began the 2019 season at high Single-A Frederick before moving up to the Eastern League on July 16.

“It is interesting,” said Cal Ripken. “Ryan came out of spring training swinging the bat well, got off to a hot start in Frederick and then had the oblique injury (April 20), which set him back a little bit, and then he started to get it back again and he was swinging the bat really well and they promoted him to Bowie.

“To me, his consistency at the plate, he feels more confident, more comfortable, having really good at-bats. Double-A is a challenge, it’s a great challenge, and I think he’s confident that he can compete at that level and he’s proven it. He’s swinging the bat really well right now.”

Preston Palmeiro, the youngest son of former teammate Rafael Palmeiro, also plays for the Baysox. And they were joined for a couple of weeks by Dalton Hoiles, oldest son of former Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles.

Ripken won’t be roped into getting too nostalgic or making the storyline about himself. He’s always been reluctant to speak much about his son’s career.

“The whole family thing, I can see now why my father always downplayed that,” Ripken said. “He really wanted to give ... the stage is set for the kids. It’s not us anymore. It’s not Rafael, it’s not me. They’re trying to carve out their own space.

“It is interesting genetics, though. Watching Preston, his setup and swing and the way he takes a pitch, there’s a lot of Raffy there. And so it’s fun to watch and it’s fun to know the history, but in the end I think everybody who’s at that level wants to be looked upon as individuals. It’s their time. So I even hesitate to look at it.

“There’s been a lot of success of big league ballplayers that grew up in the game and they’re making their marks on themselves, which I think is really cool. But you wish that you could remove the name from them for a while and let them just be who they are. Sometimes it can be a little more of a burden. Most of the time it can be a positive, but sometimes the expectations can be a burden, and the pressure that it creates, they all have to deal with that.

“I’d love to be able to take away that sort of identity and that sort of pressure and just say, ‘Be who you are.’”

Ripken’s hectic schedule has prevented him from being able to watch catcher Adley Rutschman in Aberdeen. The first overall pick in this year’s draft tends to draw a crowd, but Ripken is finding it difficult to attend games or give his full attention.

“I was there the other night, but I didn’t get a chance to watch much. I had promotional responsibilities,” he said, laughing.

“To me, there was something different looking down at the field the other day for the game. The glimpses I saw, there were some signs that these guys have got some talent. That’s not always the case when you look down and you see a double play or something that happens and you think, ‘OK, they’ve got a little work to do.’ The other night there were some plays made and there were some swings taken in the game that I thought, ‘Man, that looks good.’

“Just a feeling you get when you look down at a group of players there. They’ve got some talent there.”

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