Last Friday was day 10 of their streak. The starting nine for the Baltimore Orioles were poised on the top step of the dugout for the dash to the field to take their positions. Billy Ripken—22 years old and 10 games into his first major league season—surveyed the largest Memorial Stadium crowd since Opening Day and spotted Oliver North in a box seat near the dugout. "Whoa, Ollie," screamed Ripken, or "B. Ripken, 2B" as it appears above "C. Ripken, SS" on the lineup card signed by manager Cal Ripken.
Ollie glanced over. B. Ripken ripped off his cap and pointed to his head, which is razored and styled in an Ollie-Do. "Like the haircut?" he yelled. North raised his fist and gave him a thumbs-up. B. Ripken turned and led the charge onto the field.
Before the evening was over, North would get so carried away that he would join in a couple of rounds of the Wave as the Orioles, owners of the worst home record in baseball, beat the Kansas City Royals to win their 10th consecutive game. The next night the entire crowd would rise, chanting "Ed...deee, Ed...deee" after a game-winning eighth-inning home run off Bret Saberhagen by first baseman Eddie Murray, who had been booed for a year by the fans and offered in trade for a month by the front office.
That homer brought the streak to 11, and though the Orioles were still in sixth place, eight games under .500 and 13 games behind the leading Yankees, with a shocking 9-30 record in their own division, there was a buoyant new spirit in the city. "We've played so badly at home and been booed so much," said outfielder Fred Lynn, "we needed to somehow find something to get the town back with us again."
That something was the wise-guy second baseman in the Ollie-Do. "Probably what we needed most was some wild-eyed, boyish enthusiasm," said coach Frank Robinson. Enthusiasm? As an Oriole fan, B. Ripken used to move from the box seats given him by his father to the bleachers "so I wouldn't embarrass anyone in the organization."
"Bill's enthusiasm is so brazen it couldn't help but rub off," said third baseman Ray Knight. "He has made all the difference for this team."
The once-proud Orioles had become a mercenary lot of free agents and assorted gypsies. They finished out the 1986 season 14-42 and were 35-53 for the first half of 1987, the worst record in the majors over that period of time. The clubhouse had all the congeniality of the jury room in 12 Angry Men, in stark contrast to the days when the Orioles were a running Saturday Night Live. It wasn't long ago that after a run-in with the fence, outfielder John Lowenstein was being carried off on a stretcher before a hushed Memorial Stadium crowd and, just at the dugout, popped up and began waving madly to the fans. Or that the O's were late for pregame introductions in Game 2 of an AL Championship Series—that would be '83—because they were in the clubhouse watching The People's Court and wouldn't leave until Judge Wapner arrived at his decision. Now, sparked by their own Ferris Bueller, the Orioles are laughing again. Said pitcher Mike Flanagan, "Things are a lot more normal all of a sudden."
Winning, if only for a while, certainly helps. B. Ripken arrived on July 11. The O's lost that night, and the kid went hitless. He went hitless the next afternoon, too, but Baltimore won that last game before the All-Star break. In each of the first nine games after the break, Billy had at least one hit and the O's won them all. "Good teams are made up of players who fit together," says C. Ripken Sr., who, like C. Ripken Jr., is very much the strong, silent type. "It seems that Bill is the right fit." It's a fit that Cal Jr. has long missed in a double-play partner; Billy is the 19th second baseman he has teamed with in Baltimore.
B. Ripken won't be getting into any home run-hitting contests with his older brother; he had only seven in parts of six minor league seasons. But, in his fifth major league game, he hit a homer some 400 feet onto the grassy slope in left center at Royals Stadium. When he returned to the dugout, he got the rookie silent treatment—so he started running around handing out his own high fives.
The Orioles didn't need homers, though; they hit them in truckloads while backing up on the last-place Indians. No, they needed a kid who never shuts up in the infield, who bunts, moves runners over, cajoles walks, fields his position, makes the double play and wanders around the clubhouse in a constant babble. Pitcher John Habyan calls Billy the Nuclear Dish because "he has an endless store of energy."
By Day 10 of the streak the kid was a Baltimore cult hero. That night, five kids in Ollie-Do's walked down the aisle right past North, called to B. Ripken, doffed their caps and showed him their haircuts.
On Day 11, the hero went 0 for 4, but the Orioles won 4-3. Billy Ripken isn't the only difference in this team. "The pitching is finally back to normal," says C. Ripken, manager. The staff ERA in June was 6.36; over the 11-game streak it was 2.75. For much of the first half of the season the staff consisted of the dependable Mike Boddicker and a cast of thousands (the Orioles used nine different starters and 11 relievers in June alone). But Dave Schmidt, a White Sox castoff signed as a free agent last winter, has now gone 4-1 in 10 starts to bring his record to 10-2. Rookie Eric Bell "stopped worrying and started letting the ball go" and struck out 21 in two starts against the Royals. Flanagan returned from injury rehab and in two outings allowed four earned runs. During the streak Baltimore held opponents to one run or less six times. The bullpen even began to settle, with Tom Niedenfuer getting a win and three saves.
Nevertheless, only dreamers really believe the O's have returned to championship form. But it didn't matter on Saturday night as Murray smashed his game-winner and provoked the deafening cheers that hadn't been heard for so long. The string ended on Sunday when the Royals' Charlie Leibrandt shut out the O's 4-0 on 2 hits, but in Baltimore it had been fun while it lasted.
After No. 11, B. Ripken thought back to the '79 and '83 World Series. "I sat there in the stands," he said, "and was as caught up in the excitement as anyone. But I never knew it could be this exciting on the field. I may have grown up around the Orioles, but this is more fun than I ever imagined in my wildest dream."
Billy, with a 'do modeled after Ollie North's, has prevented the Birds from heading south.
The colonel himself was at the stadium to witness the Orioles' 10th straight victory.
The arrival of Billyball in Baltimore may prove pivotal to the future of the franchise.