When Cal Ripken Jr. played in the first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992, he was the defending American League Most Valuable Player and the face of Baltimore’s franchise. That game marked his 1,574th straight, well on his way to breaking Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games — and doing so, in 1995, at Camden Yards.
He no longer goes to the ballpark each and every day. But the iconic Ironman, who played in 2,632 straight games, has found himself there more this season than he did a few years ago, entertained by the exciting Orioles.
Ripken was the first hero of Camden Yards. Now, he has a front-row seat to the best Orioles team the ballpark has seen, at least as far as the win-loss record is concerned, as they’ve amassed nail-biting wins and memorable moments during a splashy 2023 campaign.
“They are a fun, fun team to watch,” he said.
Ripken is one of baseball history’s heroes and is uniquely heralded in Baltimore. “An icon, a legend, a guy that put the spikes on every single day for a long time in a row,” is how Orioles veteran pitcher Kyle Gibson characterized him.
A fan of the Orioles growing up in Aberdeen and since his retirement from baseball in 2001, Ripken has seats near the home dugout and lauds the team’s young talent, chemistry and “the way they play in one-run games.” That’s made him come out to the ballpark and watch on TV more this season.
“They don’t give up when they fall behind,” Ripken said.
After losing more than 100 games in 2018, 2019 and 2021, the Orioles impressed with an above .500 record last year and exploded this season by winning 101 games, their most since 1979, even before Ripken became a staple of the Baltimore infield.
They received a bye through this season’s first round of the playoffs and will host Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Saturday, the first postseason game at Camden Yards in nine years.
When the Orioles are this good, the city hangs on to every pitch, every game — an “everyday relevance,” as Ripken described it.
“You want to find out what happened yesterday. If you’re not able to watch the game or you’re not able to go to the game, you get to a point where: What’d they do last night? And who did it?” Ripken said.
For the first nine years of Camden Yards’ existence, the Orioles averaged at least 40,000 fans per game, and while that number dwindled as the team posted 14 straight losing seasons from 1998 to 2011, this year has seen a resurgence in interest with an average of 23,911.
Although that figure is below league average, it marks the team’s best since 2017. And while MLB saw a 9% increase in average attendance this season as compared to 2022, Baltimore boasted a 36% jump.
“I was lucky enough to play the first 10 years or so of Camden Yards and that atmosphere was there every night,” Ripken said. “And then it went away for a little while, but it’s good to see it back. From a fan’s perspective, I like being in that environment. I like being there where you can get caught up in the emotion of the game.”
The most amazing aspect of this year’s club, in Ripken’s estimation, is their lack of nerves.
“In close ballgames, stress situations at the end of a game, they seem to be calm and are executing at a very high level,” he said.
Asked if there is any player he particularly enjoys watching, Ripken first pointed to Gunnar Henderson. Tall, power-hitting shortstops drafted in the second round out of high school and likely Rookie of the Year winners, Ripken and Henderson are almost mirror images to some — literally, Henderson hits left-handed while Ripken was a righty. In reality, they are different players, of course, including in their placement in the field. While Ripken played third base only later in his career, Henderson plays both positions on the left side of the infield often.
“Selfishly, I’d like to see him play a little more shortstop. I like the way he plays the position,” Ripken said.
The Orioles remind Ripken a bit of the 1983 World Series team and also of the 1989 “Why Not?” club. That group, Ripken remembered, “caught fire.”
“When I think about that team, there are a lot of characteristics with this young, talented team, although I would say this team, probably, from a talent standpoint, had more than we did,” he said.
Given that talent, paired with youth — Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez and Adley Rutschman, whom Ripken praised for his ability to work with pitchers, are all 25 or younger — it’s tempting to think about the Orioles of the future. The club seems poised to, after years of dismal performances, compete in the coming years.
But Ripken cautioned against thinking too far ahead. “Let’s enjoy the moment,” he said.
“Focus on where you are now and execute,” Ripken said, “and hopefully get to the World Series and get one back for the city of Baltimore.”