Baltimore Sun file photo
By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun
The 1990s began with Cal Ripken Jr.'s getting booed for a protracted batting slump and ended with his being lauded as an emblem of all that is right with baseball -- and America.
During the decade, the Orioles' Iron Man passed milestones nearly every season and provided constancy at a time of catalytic change: from the move to Camden Yards in 1992 to the players' strike in 1994-1995 to the abrupt departure in 1997 of manager Davey Johnson, who had returned the Orioles to the playoffs in successive seasons after a 12-year absence.
Through it all, Ripken's inexorable march toward history (Lou Gehrig's streak of having played in 2,130 consecutive games) kept pace with and often superseded events of the day. But not by design, he said.
"I didn't create the streak. The managers created the streak," Ripken said recently. "They put my name in the lineup. The streak was just an extension of my responsibility."
At times, the boo-birds thought otherwise. In June 1990, fans hooted down Ripken, then hitting a shade over .200, when he played in his 1,308th consecutive game and passed Everett Scott for second place all time. Why was he in the lineup with the Orioles struggling to reach .500?
"At the time, [response to] the streak was fairly negative," Ripken said. "Then people did a U-turn. When I reached about 1,800 games, the streak became a good thing for baseball and all of my worst critics flipped over to the other side."
Each year seemed to tick off another benchmark for Ripken. In 1991, he won American League Most Valuable Player for the second time and, fittingly, was the last player to bat in the final game at Memorial Stadium.
"At the time, we were all torn about leaving there," he said. "I remember standing on the sacred ground that Brooks Robinson had stood on and thinking, 'Why can't we just fix up this place?'
"But all of that changed when we walked into Camden Yards. With its quaintness and intimacy and the Warehouse, it was like history had moved over from 33rd Street. No, it was like history had begun there before we even played there. It energized us, and we started winning."
In 1994, Ripken played in his 2,000th straight game. A year later, in the wake of an ugly strike, he broke Gehrig's mark, received a 22-minute standing ovation from the home crowd and did a lap around the ballpark. The Orioles were going nowhere, but who cared?
"I'd have preferred playing for the pennant that September, but that didn't come about," Ripken said. And while the accolades were heartfelt, he insists he was simply the conduit.
"It wasn't me, personally, that people were celebrating," he said. "It was an attachment to a feeling about baseball that goes back to its history."
In 1996, Ripken became the all-time Iron Man, passing Japan's Sachio Kinugasa (2,215 straight games). That year, Johnson took the Orioles' reins and led them to the playoffs for the first time since the 1983 world championship. Eddie Murray returned to Baltimore ("He should have been an Oriole for his whole career," Ripken said) and the lineup hit 257 home runs -- then a major league record and nearly twice the team's total in 1990.
"I was overjoyed," Ripken said of the Orioles' rebound as they advanced to the AL Championship Series before losing to the New York Yankees. "We had some boppers in the lineup [Brady Anderson hit 50 homers, Rafael Palmeiro 39 and Bobby Bonilla 28], but the greatest part was being Eddie's teammate again.
"It was like we were part of the city once more. And [a division championship in] 1997 took us one step further. Both years, we were a smidgen away from going to the World Series."
Then Johnson resigned -- he'd never allied with owner Peter Angelos -- and the team began a 14-year free fall of losing that battered attendance, which peaked at 3,711,132 in 1997.
"How we'd have done if Davey had stayed, we'll never know," Ripken said. "But at that point in time, you didn't want to change anything; you wanted to ride [success] out. Nobody could forecast what would happen. Little did we know."
On Sept. 20, 1998, with the Orioles mired in fourth place, 28 1/2 games back, Ripken ended his streak at 2,632 games in the home finale.
The following spring, his father, Cal Sr., former Orioles manager and coach, died of cancer. And the club fell further down the well.
"The '90s gave us some unique celebrations and the joy of getting back to the playoffs," Ripken said. "For me, it was the highest of highs and, at the end, the lowest of lows."
For year-by-year capsules from the 1990s, click here.