Cal Ripken, Jr. hams it up with his bronze sculpture, which was unveiled… (Gene Sweeney Jr. / Baltimore…)
The last time the Baltimore Orioles advanced to the postseason, Cal Ripken Jr. was the team's third baseman.
Fifteen years later, the Orioles have returned to the playoffs led by a dominant bullpen and a pressure-loving group that won 29 one-run games and also shined in extra innings, reviving the sport in Ripken's town.
Ripken will be part of the postseason, too, working as a TBS analyst, first in the booth with Ernie Johnson and John Smoltz in wild-card and division series games, then going to the studio with Matt Winer, David Wells and Dennis Eckersley for the American League Championship Series.
Ripken, 52, baseball's Hall of Fame iron man who played in a record 2,632 consecutive games with 19 All-Star game appearances and two most-valuable-player awards, assesses this latest October.
What does having the Orioles back in the playoffs mean to you and Baltimore?
"It's pretty darn exciting. When they were playing on the West Coast recently, the first thing you'd do every morning was check how the Orioles did. It's a great feeling to have back. Everyone's watching their games, checking on them. The fever's back in the stadium and the players are exciting to watch, with that Orioles magic in their late-inning comebacks and extra-inning wins. This team has won with 20-game winners before. This is different. This confidence they have in close games, I don't know, I've never seen it. It's hard to define. You've got to give them a chance. If it's a tight game, they always feel they'll win."
Does Manager Buck Showalter deserve more credit than anyone?
"He gets a huge part of the credit. Tremendous strategist, outstanding motivator, and he's done it before. The starting pitching has switched from who it was when the season began but guys continue to do the job. The bullpen has been lights out. They play the game so well from start to finish. And another small thing that's not so small is bringing up Manny Machado at third base to stabilize the defense beyond the main stabilizer, shortstop J.J. Hardy."
What surprises you most about the fact that the Beltway and the Bay Area are the epicenters of baseball as the playoffs begin?
"San Francisco isn't surprising with its pitching. Washington ended well last year, and I thought they'd be better, capable of something like this. The Orioles I thought would be a .500 team this year, so they're better than anyone thought. But Oakland's the biggest surprise, with those young, quality arms and playing a very team-oriented brand of baseball. The way they believe in themselves, Manager Bob Melvin doing everything right with his platoon systems to put all the guys in their best position to succeed. … Oakland's the best story. We've seen youth bring energy all across baseball this year — the way Bryce Harper runs the bases for Washington, what Mike Trout did for the Angels. Oakland's guys are having a blast, playing through the pennant pressure like they're not even thinking about it."
Speaking of Trout, do you like him or Detroit's Miguel Cabrera for American League MVP?
"I was a little on the fence a few weeks ago, listening to ESPN's Rick Sutcliffe, Aaron Boone and Tim Kurkjian talking up Trout because of all the things he does, the intangibles. But Trout is not going to the playoffs and Miguel Cabrera is, on the brink of winning the triple crown. To me, he's the most valuable player. It would be a lot tougher if both teams made the playoffs, but the [Detroit] Tigers played well when they had to, and Cabrera was a big part of that."
The St. Louis Cardinals will try to repeat as champions, but no team has since the New York Yankees in 2000. Why?
"It's hard. I can remember after we won in 1983, the Tigers started 35-5. Then, everywhere you go, you get everyone's best effort. There has been repeated successes — Texas making it to the World Series two straight seasons, Philadelphia was tough for awhile — but winning it twice? Hard."
Adding this extra wild card and the one-game elimination seems an automatic advantage for whichever team is waiting for the next series to start because it appears likely the wild-card winner will burn its ace to advance. Is this good?
"I love it. I hear the arguments about, 'You spend all season making the playoffs, it should get you more than one playoff game,' but I think it is handicapped in the right way because it puts an emphasis on winning the division, which is fantastic. These final games mattered, between the Yankees and Orioles, Rangers and A's, instead of seeing teams playing out the string."
What's the perspective you try to bring to broadcasts?