Ripken headed in right direction


His feet are squared, his knees are flexed, his bat rests just off his shoulder. The man of 1,000 stances has recast himself as one of the game's most feared sluggers. Still, any discussion of Cal Ripken's breathtaking turnaround begins not with his body, but with his head.

Ripken says he reached rock bottom when his batting average sunk to .209 last June 13. But his struggle to find himself dates as far back as 1987, when Eddie Murray was still with the club. Oh, he kept producing 20-homer, 80-RBI seasons, but not with the same impact, not like before.

"This is the best I've seen him," says Tom McCraw, the Orioles' hitting instructor since 1989. "This is what I've heard about." Ripken, 30, is again spraying the ball to all fields. The defining hit of his season might be the two-run double he crushed to right-center Sunday in Seattle.

The Orioles lost that game, but Ripken was at it again last night, pulling a two-out homer off rookie Joe Slusarski in the first inning to ignite a 6-1 victory over Oakland. He finished 2-for-3 with two walks to raise his average to .358, the highest it has ever been after May 1.

No one expects him to win the Triple Crown, but through 29 games he's third in the AL in batting, tied for first with nine homers and alone in first with 27 RBIs. The only other years in which he had nine homers at this point were 1984 and '87. Both times he finished with 27.

Statistics aside, the most impressive thing about all this has been Ripken's ability to increase his production following the loss of Glenn Davis. In previous years, he struggled without a quality cleanup hitter to protect him, but his average since Davis went on the disabled list is .379.

Manager Frank Robinson has used four different cleanup hitterin that time, the formidable Dwight Evans most often. Ripken expanded his strike zone after Mickey Tettleton was injured in 1989, and repeated his mistake last season. Now, at last, he recognizes the burden must be shared.

He admits to being "real stubborn," but he started changing hiapproach last June. It wasn't his first bad start -- he was 2-for-43 in '88, 4-for-36 in '89 -- but it was his most pronounced. He finally decided he didn't want to be the starting All-Star shortstop batting .209.

"I was very frustrated," he says. "But I was able to clear all thosthings out and start from Square One. It was a long process. But it felt better right from the beginning. I felt like it was coming around.

"I think some of the problem in the past has been me. I just got ta point where I said, 'OK, go back to the basics, wait for the ball to come to you. It's been a natural progression since then. I worked hard in the offseason. Spring training was good. It just carried over."

His new stance was simply an outgrowth of his new approachRipken says he hit more this offseason than in previous years, using the batting cage he installed in his Reisterstown home. He doesn't like to analyze the evolution of his mechanics, but he found a stance he liked, and stuck to it.

That wasn't the case last year. "He was off," Robinson said"How much he was off I don't know. The stances he had, at times he didn't give himself much of a chance. But he came into spring training this year with a nice solid foundation. It showed right from the beginning."

Ripken is clearly more balanced in his new stance. Before hwas so closed he seemed almost in line with the basepath to first. It was difficult for him to handle inside pitches, and he often lunged at the ball. "The way he's set up now, it's 100 percent better," McCraw says.

So are the results. According to the Elias Baseball Analyst, Ripken had more opportunities to drive in runners from scoring position than any player in the AL last year. But he batted only .204 in those situations, as opposed to .321 at this early stage of the season.

He has four fewer homers than Kansas City. He has reached safely in 12 of his last 14 trips. And he might draw more than 100 walks if he continues his hot hitting. Even at his current pace (84), he'd finish with the second highest total of his nine-year career.

Robinson says he's capable of producing at least five more productive seasons. As for Ripken's streak of 1,440 consecutive games, no one says a word when he's hitting. Maybe the talk-show callers can take a break from firing the manager tonight to salute their former whipping boy.

This was a case of mind over batter.

Where, incidentally, the defense never rests.

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