Ripken seems poised to follow his tough act

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you're Cal Ripken, what do you do for an encore?

He ranked among the American League leaders in every relevant offensive and defensive statistical category last year. He won almost every major postseason award. How do you top that?

If you're Ripken (and not very many of us are), you try to do it over again and take the team along for the ride.

"A lot of the optimism and enthusiasm from last year carries over to this spring," Ripken said. "A lot of the enthusiasm centered on Glenn Davis being in the middle of the lineup, and that didn't happen. We saw things come together in spring training, and that broke apart real quickly.

"He's going to come back, and, hopefully, he'll be healthy. We definitely have some good signs in the starting pitching, which was a problem last year. The bullpen has stabilized. So, if we have the ability to make all the plays in the field and score some runs and our pitchers can get us into the sixth inning, we'll be very competitive. I'm very optimistic."

Ripken enters the 1992 season on top of his game and on top of the world, but there is room to wonder whether he -- or anyone, for that matter -- could improve on the season he had last year. He established career highs in batting average (.323), home runs (34), RBI (114), extra-base hits (85) and total bases (368). He won't make any predictions, but he isn't ready to concede that there is no place to go but down.

"In some respects, you look at last year and it looks like a year that -- realistically -- would be hard to duplicate," he said, "but, at the same time, last year was probably somewhat of an unrealistic year if you look at the year before."

The year before tested Ripken's confidence and forced him to alter his batting stance and his mind-set at the plate. He came to spring training in 1991 with some doubts, but they were erased by a wire-to-wire performance that re-established him as one of the best all-around players in the history of the game.

"My confidence level is as high as it has been in some time," he said. "I think it's healthy not to get too overconfident and cocky, but I feel good about getting back to a certain level of consistency. I feel good that I've gotten back to hitting the way I'm capable of hitting on an everyday basis, and I think that could go on for a little while. I don't know whether it will mean another .323 average or not. That might not happen again or it might."

There are several reasons to believe that it will, even if there is the temptation to consider his second MVP season a statistical supernova:

* Reason No. 1: Ripken made a very noticeable mechanical adjustment at the plate during spring training last year and got consistent results throughout the 162-game schedule. His average never dipped below .308 after the first week of the season, and he finished with a September surge for the first time since 1985. No doubt, he'll be obsessive about maintaining the same mechanical approach at the plate in 1992.

"I tried to duplicate as much of the last off-season as I could and add a little bit more as far as preparation," Ripken said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I've tried to maintain the same approach as I did last year."

* Reason No. 2: He's still very much in his prime. Ripken is only 31, and last year's offensive renaissance dispensed with the notion that baseball history's second-longest playing streak is taking too great a toll on him physically and mentally.

* Reason No. 3: He's finally got some backup in the batting order. It would have been easy to point to the arrival of Davis as the reason for Ripken's renewal at the plate last year, but Davis was out for most of the season with a neck injury. Now, he's back, which should mean that Ripken gets an even better selection of pitches to hit in 1992.

* Reason No. 4: Cal knows. Even he had to wonder whether he was losing it after three straight years of declining production, but now he knows that it was just a matter of changing his stance and reducing his strike zone. That knowledge should allow him to continue to adjust successfully.

The real question is whether the Orioles have made the necessary adjustments to pull out of a two-year tailspin and get back into contention in the American League East. Ripken seems to think so. He certainly can't do it alone.

*

From the home office in Arnold: With the usual apologies to future baseball commissioner David Letterman, here's a top 10 list of reasons the president of Nintendo Co. Ltd. should be allowed to buy the Seattle Mariners:

10. Japanese owner would be forced to pay millions to lazy, unproductive American players.

9. Kingdome could be renamed Super Mariner World.

8. New uniforms -- blue overalls and red shirt and hat -- will revolutionize baseball fashion.

7. Sticking Japanese corporation with financially strapped franchise would help trade deficit.

6. Team would be able to remain in Seattle, which would be a big relief to several other major cities.

5. Introduction of video-game technology would give new meaning to the term push-button manager.

4. Huge interactive television revenues could solve small-market financial crunch.

3. Prospective owners have already pledged that they will not change team nickname to "Ham Fighters."

2. At least somebody is heeding call to "Buy American."

1. Nintendo makes video baseball look almost lifelike. Maybe it can do the same for Mariners.

*

Not out of the woods yet: Relief pitcher Mark Williamson has been mentioned in more than a few trade rumors, but he's hoping that the Orioles decide to keep the bullpen intact.

"The bright side is that when your name is mentioned a lot, it usually doesn't happen," he said. "I know that, depending on what some other guys do, I might get traded in spring training, but I hope I can stay here."

Williamson is coming off a disappointing season, but he is a proven setup man who figures to be attractive to any club in search of veteran relief help. The Orioles don't seem eager to part with him, but the emergence of right-hander Todd Frohwirth last year left Williamson less than certain about his future in Baltimore.

If the season were to begin today, the bullpen probably would consist of Gregg Olson, Williamson, Frohwirth, Mike Flanagan and Jim Poole, but look for a couple more right-handers to be thrown into the mix when the Orioles whittle down a large pool of candidates for the starting rotation. When that happens, a spring-training deal seems likely.

*

Where's Gopher when you need him?: The club personnel who took part in this year's Orioles cruise had no complaints when the boat docked a week ago. The only unhappy cruiser was first baseman Randy Milligan, who went on a different cruise line and wasn't quite as pleased with the results.

"Everybody else went on the Love Boat," he said, "and I ended up on the tugboat."

*

The Hic-man revisited: Reliever Kevin Hickey continues to work out with the Orioles at Memorial Stadium while he hunts for a job. He has talked to the New York Mets about an invitation to spring training, but has nothing firmly in place. If he can't get an invitation, he may ask the Orioles to allow him to work out at their Twin Lakes Park training facility in Sarasota, Fla., while he tries out at other camps in the area.

*

Apparently, not everything's big in Texas: The Texas Rangers appear close to giving up their effort to sign outfielder Ruben Sierra to a multiyear contract, though a one-year deal will put them at risk of losing him to free agency. The club apparently is banking that baseball's salary spiral has topped out, and that competition for Sierra on the free-agent market next winter will not be as heavy as it was for Bobby Bonilla this off-season. Good luck.

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