Ripken doesn't see Triple Crown fitting With shot at all three, he wants batting title most

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Cal Ripken didn't need the All-Star showcase to prove he is among baseball's elite players.

He didn't have to put on an awesome show in a home run-hitting exhibition (12 in 22 swings) or hit a game-winning three-run homer to prove that he had power.

And he doesn't have to win a batting title to prove he's a good hitter -- or a Gold Glove to prove he can play defense.

After all, this is a guy who has played 1,491 straight games, the second longest streak in baseball history. He won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in his first two years in the big leagues. He has been an All-Star nine straight times.

He has hit over .300 twice, driven in more than 100 runs twice, and hit 20 or more home runs nine straight years. He has played 95 straight games without an error, and an entire season with only three (still the most remarkable number in his bulging resume).

In his worst offensive year (1990) he hit .250 with 21 home runs and 84 runs batted in. All except the RBIs were career lows (he had 81 in 1986 and 1988).

Even on the most demanding report cards, those are strong numbers for the worst year of a career. Any other shortstop in baseball would ride those numbers into the Hall of Fame.

Eventually, he will make that trip too, but for the time being Cooperstown can wait because Ripken, who turns 31 next month, is still in the prime years of his remarkable career.

However, if the All-Star Game wasn't necessary to prove that Ripken walks among the greats of his profession, it did fan speculation of what his current season could bring.

What are the chances of Ripken adding a Triple Crown to hiimpressive list of credentials?

At best, and for numerous reasons, Ripken probably is still a lonshot to win any of the three hitting titles -- batting, RBIs and home runs. But he is a player in all three races.

And, as the Orioles embark on the second half of their seasonhis All-Star performance in Toronto earlier in the week is certain to draw even more attention to Ripken's possible pursuit of the Triple Crown.

Mention the subject to him, and he smiles that smile that say"please, don't ask me about that."

OK, so we'll break it down. Which of the three would mean thmost to him? And which of the three would be the most difficult?

"I would get the most satisfaction out of the batting title," saiRipken, whose .348 average gives him a comfortable lead on the pack at the moment. "That would mean that I hit the ball hard consistently all year.

"The toughest to win would be the home run title," said Ripkenwho is currently three off the league lead with 18. "There are so many big sluggers out there, it would be tough to beat all of them. I've always had the power to hit 30 home runs, and I've come close [he's hit 25 or more six times], but I've never really considered myself a home run hitter."

The chances of Ripken leading the league in RBIs, of course, idependent to a large degree on the success of those hitting in front of him. His current total of 54 puts him 11 behind league leader Cecil Fielder.

The man who can most identify with the possibilities of winning Triple Crown is Frank Robinson, Ripken's former manager and the only Oriole ever to accomplish the feat. In 1966, his first season with the Orioles, Robinson led the American League with a .314 average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs.

Curiously enough, Robinson was not alone on top of any of the three categories at the All-Star break. The Orioles had played 87 games at that point and Robinson's totals were .312, 21 and 56.

He trailed both Al Kaline and Tony Oliva in the batting race, watied with Kaline for the lead in home runs and was third in RBIs. In fact, as incredible as it now seems, Robinson was third on his own team in RBIs -- Brooks Robinson had 70 and Boog Powell 67.

"The Triple Crown is something you don't even think aboutespecially early in the season," said Robinson. "You're aware of it, because people are talking about it. But it is not even something you think about because the odds are so much against it."

Robinson agreed with Ripken on which of the three titles meanthe most. "The batting title meant the most to me," he said, "because it meant getting a lot of hits, which in turn helps you win. You can't consciously go up there thinking about hitting home runs, you just have to concentrate on getting hits.

"What helped me, I think, was the fact that we were in a pennanrace and that kept my concentration at its highest level. I have no idea when I actually started thinking about it [winning the Triple Crown], but when we pretty much had it wrapped up with a couple of weeks to go, that's when I started concentrating on it," said Robinson.

"I had pretty good leads in home runs and RBIs, but my averaggot down to .307 at one point. I remember battling Oliva to the end, but I don't know what happened to Kaline."

If Ripken ever gets to the point where he thinks he has a chancto lead the league in all three departments, he at least will know that Robinson set a precedent for coming from behind to do it.

But, that is also something he has to keep in mind while trying to protect the territory he now owns -- the lead in overall average.

Wade Boggs knows all about batting titles, having stashed five away himself. He was asked what will be the toughest thing Ripken has to deal with over the second half of the season.

"Beating me," said Boggs (.324), smiling, but serious.

"Cal has made some adjustments and he's going about it the right way," said Boggs, "but he's never had to carry an average into the high .340s or .350s through an entire season -- and that can be hard. And one thing we know -- Cal is going to play 162 games. That's a given."

Ripken's pursuit of a career year resumes tonight, and one person who's not particularly anxious about it is Oakland manager Tony La Russa, the beneficiary of Ripken's game-winning home run Tuesday night.

"Starting tonight we have to get him out," said La Russa, who recorded his third straight win as the AL manager. "That bothers me because thinking about that takes all the enjoyment out of the All-Star Game.

"Cal is on top of his game, and on top of a great career," said La Russa. "He's a great player who does great things."

La Russa didn't need the All-Star Game to reinforce that belief, and neither did most of the baseball world. But there's no doubt the glare of the spotlight will shine a little more on Ripken the rest of the year.

The Triple Crown is hardly probable, but it is possible.

RIPKEN VS.ROBINSON

How does Frank Robinson, who went on to win baseball's Triple Crown in 1966, and Cal Ripken's statistics compare at the season's midpoint.

FRANK ROBINSON/1966 Games.. Avg.... HRs.. RBIs

87 .. ..312 .. ..21.. 56

CAL RIPKEN/1991 Games.. Avg.. ..HRs.. RBIs

80 *.. .348.. ..18.. ..54

* Leads league

Robinson finished season with a .314 average, 49 home runs and 122 RBIs.

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