Quietly, Ripken has flourished

NEW YORK — * Pitcher Zane Smith runs his record to 6-1 as a Pirate as Pittsburgh beats the Cubs to reduce its magic number to 5. Baseball roundup on Page B8.

NEW YORK -- On June 13 he was batting .209. The furor over his consecutive-games streak had reached a fever pitch. It seemed doubtful Cal Ripken would produce his typical offensive season, not to mention his best defensive season.


Now it's Sept. 27, and here's Ripken, with 20 homers for thninth straight year, as well as a team-high 83 RBIs. Home run No. 20 came last night in the Orioles' 4-2 loss to New York. From both a personal and historical perspective, it was a biggie.

Ripken, 30, is only the 12th player in major-league history to hi20 or more homers in each of his first nine full seasons. He and Philadelphia's Dale Murphy are the only active players who have done it the past nine.


A total of 32 players have put together such nine-year streaksand 17 are in the Hall of Fame. Ripken's season remains somewhat of a disappointment because his .252 batting average would match his career-low. But his home run consistency is undeniable, as is his place in history.

The others who hit 20 homers each of their first nine years werEddie Mathews (14), Billy Williams (13), Reggie Jackson (13), Frank Robinson (12), Rocky Colavito (11), Joe DiMaggio (10), Ted Williams (10), Bob Johnson (9), Ralph Kiner (9), Eddie Murray (9) and Dick Allen (9).

Ripken, the only shortstop on the list, reached the magic numbeby hitting a solo shot off Yankees lefthander Chuck Cary with one out in the sixth inning last night. It was the final dramatic turn to a season he described as "one of my harder ones," at least offensively.

"The whole year has been kind of a struggle," Ripken said. "Yohave such a bad start, you get in such a big hole, you have to climb out of it. And you feel like you're just scratching the surface when you climb back."

But Ripken has fought back, nearly all the way. His careeaverages entering this season were .277, 26 homers and 93 RBIs. He won't match those numbers, but except for his average, he will come reasonably close -- despite his .207 average with men in scoring position.

In addition, Ripken has made only three errors all season. He camake two more in the final seven games and still set the major-league record for fielding percentage by a shortstop. He is currently at .995 (651 chances). Toronto's Tony Fernandez set ,, the existing mark of .992 last year.

His offense once overshadowed his defense, now it's the otheway around. Still, Ripken has batted .277 since his average reached its season-low on June 13. He is now tied for the club lead in homers with Randy Milligan. He is first in doubles (27) and triples (4) as well as RBIs.

"He's risen to his track record," Orioles hitting coach ToMcCraw said. "He's done what you'd expect him to do. Sure he'd like his average to be higher. But you judge people on production. The man is earning his money. I think, unequivocally, he's the premier shortstop in the game."


Did he salvage his season?

"There have been a lot of good signs," Ripken said. "I felt like was hitting rock bottom for a while. The only direction was up. But I feel in a lot of ways I'm back to my old self hitting, where I can drive the ball to the gap in right-center for a double or triple, or fight balls off my fists and hit them the other way.

"Those are small accomplishments. I don't know if 'salvagewould be the right word. But I feel good. I didn't quit. I didn't lay down. I kept trying to come back."