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Ripken sees ball, not dollar signs, in typical-not poor-season


That Cal Ripken Jr. isn't providing the production expected -- after turning down $30 million with the hope of improving his bargaining position -- is causing anguish and consternation in saloons, the press box, grandstand, dugout, among crab pickers and oyster shuckers and even within executive board rooms.

Some of the Ripken adherents, who regard his employer, the Baltimore Orioles, as a miserly organization for not giving him even more than $6 million per season for the next five years, contend the reason he's having trouble is because every time he carries his bat to home plate he's more concerned about getting his signature on the proper-sized contract than bat on ball.

That's not only unfair but a terribly inaccurate hypothesis. That's not Ripken and it's certainly not baseball. There's simply no validity to any of that. Professional baseball players have problems in accord with those that beset the rest of society, those being personal or financial, but when it comes to stepping in the batter's box concentration is entirely focused on the pitcher and putting a good swing on the delivery that's upcoming.

Such diverse subjects as salary negotiations, love for their wives and children, buying a house, why the fish aren't biting or concern over a golf handicap don't enter their minds. Mayo Smith, onetime manager of the Detroit Tigers, while reflecting on baseball mentality, said if you could be permitted to peer inside the brains of most players he knew, you would find they were thinking of jazz bands or naked women -- not necessarily in that order.

But at home plate, with bat in hand, it's strictly business. No time for extraneous subjects or outside influences. It's as Yogi Berra, one of the game's most notorious bad ball hitters, said, "There's no way to hit and think at the same time." It's as applicable to

illiterates as it is to Phi Beta Kappa members.

The swing is the thing for Ripken and every other player who comes to the plate. In regard to Ripken's record, 1991 was momentous. A career year. They don't come much better, unless your name is Cobb, Ruth or Wagner. Cal was at his best in all important categories -- an impressive average of .323, 114 runs batted in and 34 home runs. It added up to winning the Most Valuable Player Award and even more acclaim than he knew before.

Maybe Cal spoiled the Orioles with the kind of figures he amassed. Stop to consider, as it would be for most other players, that this was a far-above-average performance. It wasn't a typical year. To the contrary, it was exceptional.

Frankly, too much is being expected of him this time around. He shouldn't have to "hit back" to the numbers of a year ago. Take a quick check of his previous four seasons: He was .250 in 1990, .257 in 1989, .264 in 1988 and .252 in 1987. And the previous two ahead of that, 1985 and 1986, he had identical .282s.

His lifetime mark for 10 years is .279, which is highly acceptable for a shortstop who makes all the tough plays, is at his position game after game and adds so much toward the team concept in baseball. Last season was not a "fluke," just far above average.

He had a remarkable total of extra-base hits, 85, and drove the ball with authority. Most of his line drives were "hot," the kind of ropes that would hold up the family wash.

Indeed, it was a rare happening when a ball off his fists or the end of the bat fell in for a freakish single. Another interesting statistic is he made it to first base on 17 opposition errors, which is an amazingly high number. If half of those had been ruled hits, he would have had gone even higher than .323.

Ripken must be evaluated overall, which means that in this, his 10th season, he hasn't missed starting a game since May 29, 1982. There hasn't been this kind of longevity demonstrated since Henry Louis Gehrig. Reiterating, it's important to measure Cal off career achievements, instead of using last year as a comparison. To do that is exceedingly unfair.

The fact that he hasn't been signed, after rejecting $30 million for five years, doesn't in any way explain why he's batting .258 with 10 home runs. With two months remaining, he can still reach his norm, an average in the .270 range and collecting slightly more than 20 home runs and handling the most demanding job, shortstop, with near perfection.

Maybe 1992 will evolve into more of a typical Cal Ripken year than 1991, when he was close to impeccable. The defense rests its case.

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