Struggling to right a franchise gone wrong, the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday fired manager Cal Ripken, Sr. six games into the 1988 season and replaced him with Frank Robinson.

Robinson, a Hall-of-Fame outfielder who enjoyed some of his finest years as an Oriole, is baseball's first black manager since 1984. But forgive the fans of this dirt-under-the-fingernails city if they overlook the significance of that fact. The only color they have known around here in recent years is blue.The Orioles have fallen hard and they have fallen fast, and Tuesday's abrupt dismissal of Ripken was testimony to that.

Other managers have either lost their jobs or quit them earlier in a season (Phil Cavaretta of the Chicago Cubs, for one, was canned in spring training in 1954), but none was an Oriole.

Baltimore has come to be known for two things through the years: crabcakes and the stability of its baseball organization.

"It (six games) is certainly a short span," said Roland Hemond, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, "and I feel some degree of compassion and guilt for Cal. But there's a lot at stake. ... I just didn't see the positive signs of improvement I'd wanted to see."

What did in Ripken was an 0-6 start, which tied the team's worst since 1955. It came after a 9-19 spring following a 95-loss, fifth-place finish in the American League East last year.

But the larger picture includes more than Ripken's 168 regular-season games.

The Orioles are one of only two franchises in the past 25 years whose record has gotten progressively worse over four consecutive seasons.

A line graph of their recent history points steadily downward: 77 losses in '84, 78 in '85, 89 in '86 and 95 last year. This from a team that averaged nearly 96 wins a year (excluding strike-shortened 1981) from 1968-83.

Into all this steps Robinson, 53, who signed a contract for the remainder of the season only. If he has anything going for him it's a familiarity with tough spots.

In 1975, Robinson became baseball's first black manager when he took over the Cleveland Indians. Since then two other blacks Larry Doby with the Chicago White Sox in 1978 and Maury Wills with Seattle in '80-'81 - also has a chance.

After being fired in Cleveland midway through the 1977 season, Robinson became the first black to be re-hired as a manager, this time with the San Francisco Giants, in 1981. He lasted just over three full seasons.

He rejoined the Orioles as a batting instructor in 1984, and this season was working in the front office as an assistant to owner Edward Bennett Williams.

"Contrary to what a lot of you might think, this is not something I've counted on since the beginning of the year," Robinson said. "I wasn't waiting for this. I had no thoughts about coming back (to a field-level position) at all."

Robinson took over a team in the midst of a terrible hitting slump. After Tuesday night's 6-1 loss to the Kansas City at Memorial Stadium, Baltimore has been outscored 49-8 and ranks last in the league in hitting.

The Orioles' four key power hitters first baseman Eddie Murray, shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., center fielder Fred Lynn and designated hitter Larry Sheets had two RBI and no home runs among them.

But even more disturbing than the lack of hitting had been the sloppy play of the team.

The Orioles had three baserunners picked off in a recent four-game series with the Indians. Twice they had allowed runners to score from third on double-steal attempts. And pitcher Scott McGregor's failure to back up third base Sunday cost the team yet another run.

In the glory days of the franchise, those kind of things wouldn't have happened in spring training, let alone the regular season.

When they were at their best, the Orioles combined sound fundamentals with good talent to produce some of the finest clubs in recent history. Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford wrote of their efficiency that "the Orioles were as good at doing a day's work as any team ever."