21 April, 2014

Have the Capitals Found Their Cal Ripken Sr.?

Cup'pa JoeTalk to a downtrodden Orioles’ fan today (is there any other kind?) and the common lament among most, beyond censure for the obvious disgrace that is Peter Angelos’ management, is the loss of what was known as “the Oriole Way.” Succinctly stated, that ethos represented the antithesis of what the New York Yankees have become since about the middle of last decade: buyers of talent as opposed to being the developers of it. But the term also represented the application of baseball’s timeless fundamentals among all classes of development within the organization.

The Baltimore Oriole up until about 1995 or so was a player who tended to be drafted by the club and patiently developed within its sytem, and once he jogged out to his position in old Memorial Stadium a fan could be assured he knew how to play it. And play it well.

“The Oriole Way” was commonly credited for delivering the organization’s stature — pre-Angelos — as one of baseball’s flagship franchises. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a broadcast interview of old man Angelos in which he’s referenced it. Say no more. And of course, it’s more than interesting to observe the tandem development of the degradation of the Oriole Way and the team’s decade-long finish at the very bottom of its division.

It’s wonderful for a baseball or hockey organization to have a blueprint for perennial contention — drafting deftly, which in turn nourishes the organization’s development system, and tinkering with the parent roster externally in modest fashion — but someone actually has to lead and manage the plan out on the playing fields or ice sheets. For the Orioles, that man was, primarily, Cal Ripken Sr.

The elder Ripken, who passed 10 years ago, spent 36 years in the Orioles’ organization, as a player, coach, scout, and manager. I highly, highly commend to you Thomas Boswell’s appreciation of Ripken, which poignantly illustrates the breadth of influence Ripken had on a generation and a half of Orioles’ prospects and players. Because the Orioles were committed to the Oriole Way and because Cal Sr. was committed to the Orioles, an awful lot of magnificent baseball was on display at “the Old Gray Lady on 33rd street.”

Cal_Ripken_Sr_web.jpgAs a Marylander who grew up taking in a healthy share of magical summer baseball nights in Charm City, eventually I began to wonder if the Capitals could ever develop something akin to the Oriole Way. Deep into this summer, I’m wondering if perhaps we aren’t witnessing the dawn of just that. 

Now to state the obvious, Bruce Boudreau won’t be influencing the Capitals’ organization for anything approaching 36 years. But it’s fairly astounding to reflect on how significantly he has influenced the club in less than two years in town.

Bruce Boudreau isn’t merely the Capitals’ head coach, it seems in this space. His counsel today seems to impact decisions far and wide across the organization.  

He’s overhauled, radically, the system and style the Caps play, having done that first down on the farm in Hershey — and winning a Calder Cup with it. He’s taken young and raw and promising prospects (Mike Green, David Steckel, Brooks Laich, perhaps even Alexander Semin) and helped them achieve something close to their maximum abilities as professional talents. He’s turned losers into winners.

And that’s just his influence on the ice. Could anyone seriously doubt that Gabby’s system now directly influences the type of player the Capitals typically target in Entry Drafts? Few of us knew much about Marcus Johansson at the time of his first-round selection back in June, but the more we learned of his game — his “hockey intelligence,” his deftness as distributor of the puck, his strong skating — the more he seemed a terrific fit in Gabby’s system. Ditto second-round selection Dmitri Orlov. Would a Brian Sutherby type of player, do you imagine, be drafted by today’s Capitals’ scouts, for this Capitals’ system?      

Boudreau is to be further credited I think for the first-ever, formal strategic synergy between the Capitals and their American League farm club. Way back last September, when I interviewed Ted Leonsis in his Verizon Center office, he explained to me how a Hershey Bear called up to D.C. has an instant ability to gel and mesh with the Caps on the ice in all facets of drills, as the practice sessions between the clubs mirror each other down to the minute the respective teams enter and exit the ice sheet. Only Bruce Boudreau could be the architect of this.

To visit Giant Center in mid-winter is to see many of the next generation of Caps not merely by affiliation but from the success they exhibit executing the system they employ. This spring I watched with fascinated admiration the very young John Carlson stand out on his Bears shifts much as young Mike Green did there three years before him. But it wasn’t Bruce Boudreau coaching up Carlson but Boudreau’s Bears protege, Bob Woods. Woods this summer was promoted by the Caps — I wonder by whom? — and slotted in to Woody’s role in Hershey is Mark French, who’ll carry forward the pressure and push the puck approach preached by Gabby.

And the players in this organization love playing it. And the fans, just like the Orioles’ fans of the Oriole Way of yesteryear, love watching it.    

To be sure Washington needed winning hockey to inaugurate its ascent into hockey town status. To the extent that it remains one, we may look back years hence and credit the man currently on the bench — the architect whose touch we might label “the Capitals’ Way.”


  1. Jim Turner wrote:

    Great Blog,
    Watching both the Nationals and the Caps gives me much greater appreciation for the Oriole way. As it pertains to the Caps I agree that Boudreau will have a similar effect on the Caps organization as Riplen did but I also believe Bruce Boudreau needs to evolve into a more balanced minded coach before I grant him the Oriole way mantra.
    The one thing that stands out about those Orioles teams under the tutelage of Ripken Sr. was they didn’t beat themselves. They were not flashy or fancy as the Caps tend to be. The Orioles focused on the basics and that worked. Hopefully Boudreau and the Caps learned a bitter lesson that fancy, cute hockey is no substitute for going to the net and simplifying the game.
    To that end the Caps seemed to pick up players to correct that mistake. Let us hope that Boudreau continues to evolve into our Cal Ripken Sr. The only lesson I think Boudreau needs to master is balance.

    19 August, 2009 at 7:59 am | Permalink
  2. Jeremy wrote:

    Hooray! A post combining my two favorite teams: the Caps and the O’s. Excellent post, pucks. I would also recommend reading The Only Way I Know by Cal Ripken. It also goes into depth about the Oriole Way and Cal Senior.
    I’m a little too young to remember the Oriole Way, but I know my history and I know it produced winners. If the Caps can indeed embrace this philosophy, they will be perennial winners too. Perhaps one day we will look back fondly on these times and remember the “Capital Way.”

    19 August, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  3. Jeremy wrote:

    Whoops, that should read The Only Way I Know by Cal Ripken Jr.

    19 August, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  4. chuck wrote:

    $1 Nats tickets went on sale for the Fri game at the Nats homepage!

    19 August, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  5. Jenn wrote:

    Yet another great blog… I really do think Coach Boudreau has the potential to be a great hockey mind in the Capitals organization for a very long time… Even when the time comes to pass on the riggers of being our ‘Coach’, I think he’ll continue to play an intricate part behind the scenes (drafting, scouting, etc.)
    He has such a great passion for the game, the players, all that entails Washington hockey…

    19 August, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink
  6. VC wrote:

    Way, way, way, way too soon to be speculating on this concept (“Have the Capitals Found Their Cal Ripken Sr.?”).

    20 August, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink