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Slip Slidin' Away

A slump at home may have knocked the fatigued Baltimore Orioles from contention for the American League East title

Cal Ripken's unbelievably blue eyes, the ones that have sparkled continually through 1,715 consecutive games, finally looked tired and worried on Sunday as he dragged his sore right ankle and his .239 batting average out of the Baltimore Oriole clubhouse 90 minutes after the end of a 1-for-11 weekend.

Most of his teammates were gone. They, too, had left dragging after a 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, their sixth defeat in their last seven games. What was supposed to be the Orioles' run at the American League East title had become a wind-sucking stumble of a home stand that featured a nine-RBI game by the New York Yankees' Danny Tartabull, a four-stolen-base night by Milwaukee's John Jaha and a 12-strikeout gem by the Brewers' Cal Eldred. By week's end Baltimore had fallen five games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.

It's kind of sad that a 1992 championship flag probably won't fly over spectacular Oriole Park at Camden Yards, site of 50 straight sellouts through Sunday. It has been a remarkable season for Baltimore's intriguing collection of retreads and No. 1 draft choices. Twelve more victories and the Orioles will become only the fourth team ever to win 90 games the year after a 95-loss season. Even if they don't catch the Blue Jays—the two teams play a three-game series in Baltimore on Sept. 22, 23 and 24—they have built themselves into contenders for years to come.

Ripken, 32, will very likely be a major contributor to those title chases, but this year it has been painful to watch him play. A cinch Hall of Famer who last season was the American League MVP and the game's best player, Ripken had only 10 home runs through Sunday, and he hadn't homered in his last 73 games, during which he hit .190. He remains the most sure-handed fielder in baseball, but a year full of injuries has slowed him at shortstop. Saturday night he made a rare throwing error because he couldn't push off his aching ankle. No one goes back better on a pop fly than Ripken, but on Sunday he even struggled doing that.

"Sometimes I look at him and still remember the first time I laid eyes on him, when he was six years old," says Baltimore manager John Oates. "But he's not six anymore, and he's not 24. I've seen him the last four years. This year he doesn't look the same."

Several factors may have contributed to the change Oates detects. Ripken concedes that this has been his "toughest year physically." The pain lingers from having been hit on the left elbow by Toronto's Jack Morris on April 11 and in the back by the Minnesota Twins' John Smiley on July 3. But maybe the distraction of his contract negotiations has also hurt. He signed a five-year, $30.5 million deal on Aug. 24, but the five months of haggling that led to that signing interfered with his focus. Or maybe he has been worn out by The Streak. Playing 1,715 consecutive games is an admirable feat, but eventually it must wear a guy down. Ripken has started all but 27 of those games at shortstop (he has finished 1,675) while pursuing Lou Gehrig's major league record of playing in 2,130 straight games.

Oates thinks Ripken might be physically spent, so he's considering options for 1993, like occasionally using Ripken as a DH or pinch hitter. "It's too late for this year, but I want to prevent this from happening next year," says Oates. "I've done research on Gehrig's streak. One game he was in the lineup at shortstop, batted in the top of the first, and then they took him out. Why couldn't I do that with Rip? If we're on the road on a Wednesday, we're off Thursday, I could give him an at bat in the first, take him out, send him back to the hotel.

"I'm not big enough to end something that he has worked 11 years for," says Oates. "It's important to him, to me, to Baltimore, to the club, to baseball. But it's not so important that I can put it ahead of the team. I'm just trying to keep him strong for the long run. I don't want to taint the streak, but I want to make sure he and Lou are playing by the same rules. Lou played a 154-game schedule, mostly on the East Coast. We play 162 all over the place. With the demands on Rip's time, I'm guessing that his 1,700 games are comparable to Lou's 2,100."

Although he clearly wants to keep the streak alive, Ripken says, "If I couldn't play, I wouldn't play. It's not so important that I would play one inning, then come out. I wouldn't just continue it for the streak's sake. A day off won't mean I'm physically refreshed. It would provide a mental break, but not a physical break."'

Oates says any move that could taint the streak would be discussed with Ripken. And if Ripken doesn't agree? "I'm the manager," says Oates. "Like a parent, sometimes you have to say, You can't."

When Oates speaks, the Orioles listen. Along with Milwaukee's Phil Garner and the Oakland A's Tony La Russa, Oates is a strong candidate for American League manager of the year. Detroit Tiger skipper Sparky Anderson says Oates, 46, "is the best young manager in baseball." He managed for three years in the minors (1982-83, '88), coached for four years with the Chicago Cubs (1984-87) and coached two years with the Orioles before replacing Frank Robinson as Baltimore's skipper on May 23, 1991. Oates doesn't marinate himself in beer or chew tobacco or swear incessantly, as some managers do, but few are more prepared, organized or dedicated. "If I'm awake, 90 to 95 percent of my time goes to this job," he says.

"The biggest advantage we probably have is our manager," says Oriole pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. "He took a lot of pressure off the pitching staff earlier in the year and put it on himself. If I didn't pitch well on Opening Day this year, I wouldn't have gotten the blame, he would have. I'm a 36-year-old pitcher who had been hurt for two years."

Sutcliffe tossed a shutout on Opening Day and has been dealing ever since, winning 15 games through Sunday. He saved the staff in August, winning four straight decisions while the rest of the starters were in a slump. "He's a champion," says Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosman.

Sutcliffe has also been Baltimore's leader. When the Orioles had an off day on Sept. 3 in Anaheim, he held a team party at the house of actor Mark Harmon, whom Sutcliffe befriended while he was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1976-81)."I was in charge of Mark's bachelor party," says Sutcliffe. "Most people have one bachelor party. Mark's sixth annual party was this year. I'm in charge of them."

Harmon seems to be the one in charge of practical jokes. Two years ago, when Sutcliffe pitched for the Cubs, Harmon and some other friends paid $7,000 to have a billboard erected in Chicago for one day. It displayed Sutcliffe's home phone number and his high school yearbook picture and urged people to call him. "I don't know what you looked like in high school, but I looked like an idiot," says Sutcliffe. "We got so many calls, we changed our number that day."

This year Harmon went to watch Sutcliffe pitch in Kansas City. After the game Sutcliffe entertained Harmon and a number of other friends and relatives at a restaurant. Harmon asked if he could show a three-minute tape from an episode of his TV series, Reasonable Doubts, on the restaurant's big screen. "I said, 'Oh no, he's up to something,'" Sutcliffe says. The scene, part of which will air later this year, takes place in a bar and somehow involves a corpse. In the clip Harmon says, "I can't believe the Cubs let Sutcliffe go." The female bartender in the scene refers to the deceased and says, "Even though he's dead, he still has a better fastball than Sutcliffe." Sadly, that part won't run.

It's true that Sutcliffe doesn't throw nearly as hard as he used to, but he wins on guts and guile, setting a good example for the young Oriole pitchers. He asks for no credit. "The main reasons we're here," he says, "are the kids, [Mike] Mussina and [Ben] McDonald."

Mussina (15-5) won the opening game of last weekend's series against the Brewers 3-2 with a complete-game six-hitter. Then Baltimore—not just Ripken—stopped hitting. Standout leftfielder Brady Anderson, slowed by a stomach virus and fatigue, went 0 for 11 with six strikeouts for the weekend. Centerfielder Mike Devereaux was only three for his last 26 at bats at week's end. Saturday night, when the Orioles were shut out by Milwaukee's Jaime Navarro on five hits, the Brewers stole five bases, including the club-record four by Jaha. "Slowest man on the team sets the record," says Jaha, who has eight steals this year.

McDonald started Sunday against the red-hot Eldred, and everyone expected a pitchers' duel. The Brewers scored twice in the second, and Eldred made it stick, firing a four-hitter. "He was throwing 100 miles per hour," Anderson said. That victory ran the rookie Eldred's record to 8-1 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts.

Against Ripken it was High Cal versus Low Cal. When Eldred fanned Ripken in the seventh, the crowd booed Ripken. When Eldred ended the game with a strikeout, the 44,242 hushed fans seemed to sense that this season was slipping away. But the Orioles, especially Sutcliffe, weren't conceding. "I came here because Johnny convinced me this team could win," Sutcliffe said. "We've now put ourselves in a position where we have to win all three against Toronto. But from here on you play from the neck up. If you think about how tired your legs are or how sore your shoulder is, you can't win. We have to pick it up."

Do they have the energy to do it? It's a bad sign when their nonstop shortstop finally is beat.



Pat Listach was in there, and after losing a pair to the Brewers, Baltimore was five out.



Listach avoided the tag at second (above) but not at home, where Jeff Tackett nailed him.



[See caption above.]



Ripken is still putting on a good face, but his subpar season has been a source of worry.