Snap out of it, Cal, and lead Orioles to the top


One player can't win a pennant, but one player certainly can help. It's time for Cal Ripken to assert himself offensively, or else the Orioles can forget about catching Toronto.

Few teams win division titles with No. 3 hitters who produce only 14 homers and 76 RBIs, but those are Ripken's projected totals with seven weeks remaining.

The numbers not only would represent career lows, they'd renew the debate over Ripken's true offensive value, which surely is the last thing he wants in his free-agent year.

To state the matter simply, Ripken is engaged in an enormous clash of wills with club owner Eli Jacobs. And for the first time in his career, he's getting stared down.

As usual, any negative portrait of Ripken is coated in shades of gray. But there's no denying that if last year was his best, this one is evolving into his worst.

Last year, he batted .323 with 34 homers and 114 RBIs to win his second MVP award. This year, he's batting .255 with 10 homers and 55 RBIs, and the season is nearly three-quarters complete.

He had better snap out of it, not just for his own sake, but the team's. The Orioles need better relief pitching to close the three-game gap to Toronto. But mostly, they need Ripken to ignite.

Indeed, their entire offense is based on the premise that Ripken will finish with at least 20 homers and 80 RBIs -- just as he did in each of his 10 previous major-league seasons.

It's called a track record, and it's the reason manager Johnny Oates refuses to drop Ripken from the third spot, even as he struggles through a career-high 49-game home-run drought.

Why tinker anyway?

The Orioles continue to get astounding production from the top and bottom of their batting order, and cleanup man Glenn Davis has hit as many homers as Ripken in 217 fewer at-bats.

Ripken's last homer was June 23, two political conventions ago. Brother Bill has hit two since then, a shocking development considering that he was out-homered by Cal 34-0 last year.

Still, the home-run drought is significant only because it's preventing Ripken from driving in more runs. With three more RBIs, he'd be on a pace for 80; 11 more, a pace for 90.

One home-run binge, and the matter would be settled. Inadequate as Ripken's production seems, he's batting .287 with men in scoring position, and leads the club with 24 tying and go-ahead RBIs.

As for his overall average, it shouldn't be that surprising. Ripken's current mark is rounded off from .2549. His average in the four seasons prior to last year was .2556.

By now, it's obvious last year was an aberration, but the Orioles don't need the Ripken of '91. They just need the one whose apologists always claim, "The numbers will be there at the end."

And if they're not?

Six days short of his 32nd birthday, Ripken remains invaluable by virtue of his defensive play alone. Even in an off-year, he's one of the game's top offensive shortstops. And, of course, he plays every day.

The combination should have earned him a new long-term contract long ago, but Jacobs didn't want to commit fair market value when he still had a chance to drive the price down.

Perhaps Ripken was foolish to reject the Orioles' five-year, $30-million offer in spring training. But how smart was Jacobs, fooling with the psyche of his best player with an entire season at stake?

It's his money, and it's his gamble. Ripken is left with 44 games to state his case, 44 games to prove yet again that he's not only a pillar of the community, but a cornerstone of the franchise.

He batted only .198 in September of '89, when the Orioles were last in a pennant race. But just imagine if he duplicates his stretch drive of '83, when he hit .391 with nine homers and 30 RBIs from Aug. 13 to Sept. 25.

The Orioles went 34-10 over that span to win the last AL East. A similar run now almost certainly would enable them to overtake Toronto. Ripken, meanwhile, would finish with 19 homers and 84 RBIs, and emerge as a candidate for his third MVP.

Fantasy? Not after what Ripken accomplished last year. Today marks the first day of the rest of his season. The man is resolute enough to play 1,691 straight games. It's time he buries the past four months, and lifts the Orioles to higher ground.

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