If Cal Ripken Jr. was a golfer you might say that his career was moving toward the back nine. It's a stage of life every professional athlete experiences.
Some would call it mid-career crisis. A much simpler, and more realistic, definition would be attitude adjustment.
Not that there was ever anything wrong with Ripken's attitude, or that there was ever much of an adjustment necessary. Anybody who can play almost 10 years without missing a game does not have to change his approach.
But even the smoothest running machines need to be fine-tuned. And when you've established a high standard of excellence, consistency and dependability are not always enough.
Especially when you are your own toughest critic.
Ripken moved gracefully into the middle of his career with a performance chart that would be the envy of anybody who ever played his position.
He has been an All-Star for eight straight years, the last seven as a starter. He has averaged 25 home runs over his first nine years without hitting more than 28 in a season. He has averaged 92 runs batted in during the same period without driving in fewer than 81.
He has led the American League a total of 20 times in various defensive categories, establishing two major-league records along the way. He hasn't missed a game since his brother (second baseman Bill Ripken) was in high school back in 1982.
The only blot (if you can call it that) on Ripken's consistency chart has been his batting average. His career mark is .274, but there is a 68-point difference between his high (.318 in 1983) and his low (.250 last year).
And that is why Ripken, suddenly, is again drawing so much attention. More than a third of the way through the season he is leading the American League with a .353 average and the strong start has aroused the curiosity of his peers, scouts and fans in the process of electing him to his ninth All-Star team in a landslide.
"I was anxious to see what he was doing different," said Kansas City's George Brett, one of this generation's great hitters, when he arrived in Baltimore earlier in the week. "Cal doesn't run that fast, he doesn't get many infield hits, and you don't usually see guys like that hitting .350-.360.
"He looks more relaxed to me," said Brett. "It looks like he can attack the ball better with more leg drive and not as much upper body movement."
Dave Yocum, who serves as the advance scout for Toronto, where Ripken and the Orioles will play this weekend, notices some subtle changes. "He's definitely tougher to pitch to now than he was before," said Yocum. "I think the adjustment he's made in his stance has helped keep his bat in the hitting area longer. And he's doing some other things too, like bunting."
Ripken's stance, of course, has been the focal point of most of what has been written and said about the Orioles' premier player this year. "The fact that he's settled into one stance, has confidence in it and hasn't deviated has helped him," said former manager Frank Robinson.
The new stance, with a slight crouch, the bat horizontal, and his feet close to a squared off position, is an obvious change for Ripken from recent years. But it isn't as drastic as it appears, and didn't happen overnight.
What most observers forget is that Ripken used the same stance he brought to the major leagues for almost seven years. Earl Weaver, his first manager, wanted to change him almost immediately to take advantage of Ripken's home run potential.
But it has only been in recent years that Ripken began a constant period of adjustment. It is not coincidental that took place while the Orioles themselves were going through a radical period of readjustment.
Through it all Ripken's home run and RBI numbers were more than respectable, but his average played like a yo-yo until he reached a point last July where he decided to start from scratch.
"Though all my experimentations I created a lot of bad habits," he said. "It reached a point of frustration where I decided to forget about everything and start over again with the basics of hitting. Frank [Robinson] was very instrumental in that, as was my dad [third base coach Cal Ripken Sr.].
"Frank had a long and successful career, so he could relate to what I was going through. He told me about one year when he wondered whether he would ever hit again."
Gradually, Ripken pulled out of his deep funk (he was hitting .209 this time a year ago), but that was only a start. "It didn't happen overnight," he said. "It's a confidence factor and the key was that I had a good spring training and it just carried over."
Through it all Ripken had to deal with the expectations he created early in his career. "Sometimes I think too much was expected of him because he came on the scene with such a bang -- Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player the first two years," said Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who has observed Ripken's career from the television booth. "I had some up and down years -- I'd throw in a .230, then come back with a .290. I
know I had to make some adjustments."
Brett knows all about expectations, having flirted with the .400 mark in 1980. "I don't remember making any changes, in my stance or anything like that," said Brett. "But I learned early that you can't expect too much.
"When I hit .390 , Rod Carew told me, 'Don't think you can go out and duplicate it.' He'd hit .388 in 1977, so he knew what it was like.
"The next year my average dropped 89 points and everybody thought I had a bad year. I hit .301 and thought I had a pretty good year.
"The thing with Cal is he's out there every day, batting third, playing defense -- and every place he goes it's 'Cal Ripken and the Baltimore Orioles.' He's got a lot to deal with, but he enjoys playing. He's just got to be able to block all of that other stuff out of his mind, and go out and play."
Although he admits it makes a big difference, Robinson has never completely bought the theory that a hitter needed protection in the lineup. "You've got to be able to put the other things out of your mind," said Robinson, who admits that sometimes a hitter has to be selfish to do that. "You can't worry about the club going bad, a losing streak, the fact we're not getting runners in from third base.
"You have to have the right mental approach and be able to relax. You can't say 'I've got to do it all,' you've got to be able to say 'I can only do so much.' "
During the first three years of his career (1982-84), Ripken averaged .297, with 27 home runs and 94 RBIs. The next three years his numbers were .272, 26 and 98. The last three years his batting average dipped to .257 and he averaged 21 homers and 86 RBIs.
The three stages of Ripken's career coincide with the Orioles' fall from a World Series championship (1983) to a team that dropped out of contention in late August (1986) and ultimately to a team that bottomed out (1987-88) and started over (1989-present).
Ripken admits that as the Orioles passed from one stage to another, so did he. "I went from being a small part of a successful team to a big part of a rebuilding team," he said. "You might get 600 at-bats in all of those seasons, but sometimes the same opportunities aren't there.
"In 1982-83-84 there were a certain amount of situations where you knew you were locked in with the pitcher. You both knew it was strength against strength. In other years there weren't as many of those kind of opportunities."
In the process Ripken became more home run conscious because he felt that's what was expected of him. He knew what the other team was doing, and tried to find a way to counteract it.
"I don't go into our pitchers meetings," said Brett, "but I'm sure every time a team comes in here they sit around and say 'we're not going to let Ripken beat us.' "
Ripken admits accepting that philosophy has been difficult. "It confuses you," said Ripken, whose glittering .390 average this month also includes but three RBIs and no home runs. "You're in the middle of the lineup where home runs are expected. If those thoughts come into your mind then, yes, you're becoming conscious of hitting home runs, instead of letting them be products of good at-bats and good swings."
And then there is the high expectation factor for which he laid the groundwork 10 seasons ago. "I don't think it bothered me," said Ripken. "But the perfectionist in me wants to do everything I can and not settle for less than that. I'm always looking for what I expect from myself.
"But then it seems to go full cycle and has a lot to do with confidence -- realizing why you did well and how you can do well. It's a sense of relaxation, of not trying to do more than you can do on a day-to-day basis."
And on a day-to-day basis nobody in baseball does more than Cal Ripken Jr.