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This power trip tough for Ripken to downplay


TORONTO -- Thirty minutes after the show ended, Cal Ripken was still wandering around the American League clubhouse in a palpable daze, a disbelieving grin stuck on his face. Players, coaches and clubhouse attendants were congratulating him, shaking his hand, laughing with him about what he'd just done.

"It was a freak, a total freak," he kept saying, and then he'd smile and shake his head, because he couldn't believe it either. "I don't know what got into me out there."

It happened yesterday at SkyDome in something called the Gatorade Home Run Derby, a home run-hitting contest between All-Stars from the two leagues. It was part of a day of practices and exhibition leading up to tonight's All-Star Game, with 44,000 fans in the stands on a sunny, windy afternoon. Ripken began hitting home runs and, for a while, looked as though he might never stop.

He hit one out with his first swing.

And third swing.

And fourth.

And fifth.

And sixth.

And seventh.

And eighth.

Yes, seven homers in his first eight swings.

They weren't just high flies that got caught in the wind, either. They were monsters. Clobber jobs. One bounced off the facing of the fourth deck of the outfield stands. Three landed in the third deck. These were 450-footers. One went 470. The crowd roared louder and louder with each hit.

"Good gosh, buddy, cool off," said Rene Lachemann, the Oakland A's coach who was catching.

"I know, I know," Ripken said, shaking his head at the plate. "I don't believe this."

He wound up hitting seven out in 10 swings and, thinking he was finished, walked toward the dugout. But there was a misunderstanding about the rules. He thought he had just 10 swings, but the rule was he could continue hitting until he'd hit 10 balls that were judged outs. So, back up to the plate he strode.

The crowd applauded. He popped up on his first swing. Then he hit one out. Then another. Then another, giving him three in a row and -- check this out -- 10 home runs in 14 swings. It was absolutely Ruthian.

"Unbelievable," the Twins' Kirby Puckett said later.

"Just terrific," said the White Sox's Carlton Fisk.

"My arms started getting tired," Ripken said.

Then it was almost as though he suddenly was embarrassed by what he'd done, that it was too much, a power overdose. He'd hit all the balls to left field, but he started hitting toward center, even to right. He popped up. Grounded out. Stopped reaching the seats.

He finished with 12 homers, a very clean dozen, only three fewer than the other seven competitors combined. The Tigers' Cecil Fielder, hitting last, came close to topping him with a mondo-poke over the restaurant high in the center-field stands. But nothing, no one, could top a dozen.

"I have to be honest," Ripken said later. "It was as unbelievable to meas it was to everyone else. It got to the point where I said, 'I don't know what I'm doing here, but it's incredible.' That's just not something I'm likely to do."

No. Ripken is a commendable power hitter, the first shortstop in history to hit 20 homers in nine straight seasons, but he isn't the kind opponents stop to watch in batting practice. He doesn't even hit balls out in batting practice. Showmanship, in any form, just isn't his style.

"I try for line drives to left in BP," he said. "My theory is that you can screw yourself up trying to over-swing at pitches that are thrown 60 or 65 mph. It's easy to get into bad habits."

That was what concerned him, because after years of tinkering and frustration at the plate, he is on the best roll of his career, hitting a league-leading .348 with a fluid, strong, comfortable stroke. "I don't know what he's told himself, but he looks a lot better than he used to," Fisk said. Ripken was worried about that. Worried that he might ruin his stroke by over-swinging in a home run contest.

He'd said Sunday at Yankee Stadium that he really didn't even want to participate in yesterday's contest. But he had no choice. He'd been invited, and he felt the tug of responsibility. So there he was yesterday on the green carpet of this shimmering, post-modern stadium, following the Reds' Chris Sabo, the first National League hitter, who didn't hit a single

ball out in his 10 chances.

"I was a little nervous at first," Ripken said. "There's some pressure. Everyone is watching. You don't want to come up with nothing. Maybe [Sabo's failure] helped me. Then I hit one out and relaxed, and then they just started flying. Every pitch coming in looked big. Huge. Like a beach ball."

It happened suddenly and it may be the best All-Star moment he'll ever have, and it got to him. It did. He is a 30-year-old who always tries to soft-pedal his considerable accomplishments, but he couldn't hide his sheer pleasure this time.

He walked back to the dugout with a big smile and slapped high-fives with his teammates, most of whom were up on the top step, bug-eyed over the show. Then he laughed and beat them all to the punch. "That's unbelievable," he shouted, and after a few minutes the contest was over and he was talking to reporters, and he looked down and fingered the bat in his hand.

"I don't know what happened out there," he said, "but I'm not letting this bat out of my sight."

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