TAKING A STAND, NOT A REST Ripken puts up numbers, shuts up critics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kansas City, Mo. -- The talk-show types have fallen silent, or at least they have turned their attention to more pressing concerns. Cal Ripken doesn't need a day off anymore, not that he ever took one.

What he needs is a little more help from the rest of the Baltimore Orioles lineup, which has depended too heavily on his offensive renaissance and has paid a heavy price in the standings.

The club may have to settle for Ripken's rebirth at the plate, where only a few short months ago his skills were perceived to be in a state of decline. He is leading the American League with a .345 batting average and ranks among the league leaders in every relevant category.

Perhaps this should not come as a great surprise, since Ripken is one of the most productive hitters ever to play regularly at shortstop, but his offense had come into question the past couple of years. Now, he has to dodge questions about his success, a subject he does not like to talk about for reasons that border on the superstitious.

He has deflected some of the more analytical queries on the grounds that he does not want to "jinx" himself, as if this were some kind of Vegas roll that depends on the luck of the draw. It is not, of course. It is all very logical.

"I just see Cal using the whole field, using the bunt once in awhile, hitting the ball to the right side," manager John Oates said, "and when he doesn't hit the ball well, they are falling in for him."

OK, so there is a small element of luck involved, but there is nothing random about Ripken's success. It's just that he has put himself in a position to get some of the breaks that he didn't get last year, when he was pulling everything to the left side.

"Look at Cal and look at a hitter like Ernie Whitt," Oates said. "This is nothing against Ernie [who hits nearly everything to the right side], but when he goes up there, he has to be lucky, because there are going to be five guys where he hits the ball. It just stands to reason that if you use the whole field, they are going to have more ground to cover.

"But I'm not saying that Cal has been hitting a lot of balls softly. He had a short period where some were falling in for him, but the past few weeks, everything has been a pea."

BTC Ripken has new stance and a new philosophy at the plate. He came into the season determined to share the offensive load with newcomers Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans. Though both of them are on the disabled list, Ripken has allowed the weight of the team to slip off his shoulders, which -- ironically -- has allowed him to carry more than his share.

"His setup is different," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "It allows him to handle a lot more pitches and allows him to hit the ball the other way with authority. Show me a .300 hitter and I'll show you a guy who hits to all fields. I don't know if he's going to hit .350 all year, but with his knowledge and the way he's setting himself up, he's going to be consistent."

To the trained eye, the difference in hitting mechanics is obvious. The rest of us will just have to be satisfied with looking at the results and listening to the experts.

"He used four or five different stances last year," Oates said. "He started out in spring training this year with one stance and there has been no reason to change it."

Ripken batted .380 in spring training. He has sustained his current level of offensive production for nearly 90 games, a pretty good indication that this is more than just a temporary turn of fortune.

Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly is a believer. He threw away the book and ordered an intentional walk to Ripken in the ninth inning Monday night, even though Ripken represented the go-ahead run. It was a break with conventional wisdom that didn't pay off, but it was an indication of just how well Ripken was swinging the bat at the time.

"I would have done the same thing," Oates said. "I don't think his .360 average was the only reason. There are other things that go into a decision like that. But it probably was the major factor in that decision."

Ripken went hitless in the final two games of the Minnesota series and last night in Kansas City, but his .345 average is the highest ever by an Oriole this late in the season.

He also leads the league in hits (87), multiple-hit games (31) and total bases (148). The same guy who was criticized for his stubborn resistance to any kind of outside help last year apparently found a way to help himself during the off-season.

He spent the winter experimenting with a new approach, even though his 1990 season (21 home runs, 84 RBI) was good enough to justify an "if it's not broke, don't fix it" philosophy.

"I was not at the point where I wanted to totally change everything," Ripken said. "You still want to hit the way you hit. To me, it was just a matter of consistency. I wanted to be more consistent than I was the last two years.

"I've always been someone who has been a consistent-type hitter, but I don't feel I had that consistency last year or the year before. I wasn't looking to fix something. I was just looking to improve. Everybody has a desire to be better."

The 1989 and '90 seasons featured solid run production, but Ripken's batting average fluctuated widely over the course of each season. He was particularly unsuccessful in September, which brought about a wave of criticism about the possible negative effects of baseball history's second-longest playing streak.

The streak, which now stands at 1,475 games, became a hot topic when he was preparing to move past Everett Scott and into second place behind Lou Gehrig on the all-time consecutive games list. Ripken was hitting in the low .200s at the time, which left him open to the charge that he was hurting the club by playing every day.

Of course, there are about 25 other clubs that would love to have a middle infielder hurt them with 20 home runs and 80 RBI every year, but Ripken had a tough act to follow -- himself. His numbers had declined, even if they still were more than respectable.

"I'm unique in the fact that I've got this consecutive-games streak," he said. "I look at it differently than other people do. I'm not out there playing for the streak. But I've come to realize that because of the unique position I'm in, when I don't have success, that's the area where I'm going to be attacked. I have to accept that. I don't have to understand it."

Oates looks at Ripken's performance in 1990 from a different angle, his perspective shaped by a 10-year major-league career that didn't include a large measure of offensive success.

"I didn't do that [20 homers, 95 RBI] in my whole career, in 10 years," said Oates, only slightly exaggerating. "I'd like to have had a bad year like that."

But he also sees the importance of Ripken having a good year like this.

"Of all the things that can come of this and no matter what happens the rest of the year," Oates said, "I hope the critics that say he's hurting the ballclub by playing every day will leave him alone."

On the upswing

With more than one-third of the season gone, Cal Ripken is having his best season -- statistically -- since 1983. Here are his final stats from 1983 and 1990, and how his 1991 stats project over 162 games:

WK Year..Avg.. AB. . R . ..H. .. . 2B. . . 3B. . . HR. .. RBI. . BB. . SO 1983 .318. 663* 121* 211*. . .47*. .. 2. . . 27. . . 102. . 58. . 97

1990 .250. .600. .78. 150.. .. 28. .. . 4. . ..21. . .. 84. ... 82. .66

1991

to date.345. 252. . 38. . . 87. . . 17.. ... 1. . .. 14. . . 44. .20 15

1991

projected345. 638. .96. . . 220. .. 43. . .. 3. .. . 35. .. 111. 51 38

* -- Led American League

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°