Ripken critics seem worn out this season


You don't dare ask the boss for a day off now. And we know who to blame, don't we?

Used to be, you could pretty confidently stroll up to the boss -- and I don't mean Bruce Springsteen -- and say: "But look at Cal. My God, he's out on his feet. He's Ali against Holmes, except there's no ropes to lean him on.

"Maybe he can't take a day off, but you don't want me hitting .220, do you?"

The boss had to see the logic in that, and, before he could say, "Maybe if Cal bent his knees more," you were on your way to the beach. And poor Cal, by June, gosh, the man who was prisoner to the streak, was already starting to look like Jean Valjean.

And now?

"Look at him," one Oriole said the other day, pointing to a familiar teammate. "Does he look tired?

"How come, all of a sudden, this year, he's not tired? Can you believe people? All you hear on the talk shows, year after year, is how he needs a day off. Now, you don't hear a word. Not one word.

"Are they crazy? Do they really think if he takes a day off occasionally, he's going to hit .400? What do you think it matters if a player takes off one day a month? Does one day get you rested? If you're driving a truck, do you take a day off and then want to go to work the next 161?

"I don't know why he wasn't hitting the way he used to, but I know it wasn't because he was tired. This guy is a great athlete -- I mean a great athlete.

"Look at him."

I look at him and see Cal Ripken Jr., the perennial All-Star shortstop and future Hall of Famer. And he doesn't look tired at all. In fact, if he looked any more fit, he'd get a guest shot on a Richard Simmons video. This has to be bad news for the talk-show callers.

He is kidding with another teammate as he puts on the uniform he has worn every day for what seems like a hundred years. He looks happy and relaxed, and why shouldn't he? He's hitting .359. He's leading the league in batting and total bases and he's near the lead in doubles, home runs, RBI and milk commercials.

You read it here first: Ripken may become the first player in history who was an All-Star one year and still wins the Comeback Player of the Year the next.

It makes you wonder if he was ever tired at all, unless you include being tired of getting asked about being tired.

What we know for sure is that amid the ruin of this Orioles season, he seems to have found himself, his old self, the one that could punish a baseball. He's found a new stance -- look at the way he holds the bat, the way he bends at the knees -- and, what's more, he's staying with it. Once upon a time, he would be a threat to break the record for most consecutive games played with a new batting stance. Now, he looks fresh. He looks like he just stepped out of a Lipton Tea commercial.

And he's in the kind of groove where you don't just want to come to the ballpark early, you want to sleep over. It's the kind of groove where you can send thank-you cards to every pitcher that comes to town. For a guy who's been in about a four-year slump, Ripken's idea of a bad day now is when he gets less than two hits.

"Yeah, I'd say he looks fresher," manager John Oates said. "He's working on a lot of adrenalin right now when you're hitting the way he is.

"But I don't think he was ever tired. That wasn't the problem."

We may never know the problem. It might have been that he was trying too hard. It might have been that he relied on his dad's coaching too much. It might have been that he didn't have a decent No. 4 hitter behind him. It might have been that he stopped driving the ball to right field. It might have been the position of the stars.

Whatever it was, it's gone, like a bad dream. For now, anyway.

With the Orioles' season 60 games old, Ripken has 85 hits (only 65 fewer than he had all last year), 13 homers (only eight fewer) and 43 RBI (41 fewer). He's on a pace to have the kind of season he had regularly in the mid-'80s. Last season, he had career lows in batting average, runs scored, hits, and homers (tied). Last year, the focal point of Ripken's game rested on his glove, not his bat. Ripken had come to be known as "reliable," faint praise indeed. I wonder how Michael Jordan would respond to that description.

This year was supposed to be different with the addition of Glenn Davis, who was to take the pressure off Ripken in the manner of Eddie Murray. But when Davis went down, Ripken hardly noticed. When the team went bad, Ripken didn't go bad with it.

Instead he plays every game and looks, at age 30, as eager as a pup.

The consecutive-game streak stands at 1,471. In case you didn't know. Because, here's the most important stat, I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned it.

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