Reasons for slump stump C. Ripken


So you think you're upset about Cal Ripken's little problem at the plate this season.

Try being Cal Ripken.

One year he's the MVP and a certified (by Sports Illustrated, anyway) Living Legend, and the next -- the year his contract runs out -- he's turned into Pepe Frias. This is the basic plot line to "The Metamorphosis."

And you're worried?

Ask Cal.

"It's alarming to me," said Ripken/Frias of his sudden inability to hit the ball out of the park.

He hasn't hit a home run since June 23. He doesn't drive the ball anymore. He doesn't drive in runs anymore either. Some things you can't predict. The Woodman used to be funny; the Ripper used to be able to hit.

"The longer you play," Ripken said yesterday before a particularly tough Orioles defeat, "the more things happen to you in your career. But I've never been through anything like this. I try not to think about it, just like I try not to think about other things. Sometimes, you can't help it.

"This question (about the lack of home runs) has been the hardest for me. I always thought the streak would be in first place. But the home run is sort of like a dunk in basketball. When you do it, everyone notices. And when you don't, everyone notices. It's a hard thing to put out of your mind."

It's Aug. 20, and Ripken is hitting .253, with 10 homers and 55 RBI. Not exactly legendary. It's barely Leo Gomez.

Last night, the Orioles are in the midst of a comeback, a runner is on, Ripken has a 3-and-1 count, and he pops up weakly to center. In the eighth, as the would-be tying run, he hits one to the warning track. People couldn't remember the last time he hit one that far.

How do you explain it? Here are three theories:

* The prolonged contract negotiation has upset the future Hall of Famer.

* He is nursing some undisclosed injury.

* He really has turned into Pepe Frias (who, by the way, hit one home run in nine years as a good-field, no-hit shortstop).

First, the contract. Was this the management plan all along? Were Orioles officials hoping that the MVP year was an aberration and that Ripken's value would fall during this season? Ver-r-ry smart.

Maybe the Orioles will get a relative bargain now. Of course, they may have cost themselves a division title in the process. If Ripken were having a season anything like 1991, the Orioles would be leading by at least five games.

"I've just found it harder to concentrate and focus this year," Ripken would say.

And why?

"It's a lot of different things, the contract being one of them . . . I try my darndest just to stick to the baseball part of it. I try not to get excited [if there's progress in the negotiations] or to get mad if nothing is happening. Usually I can keep it out of my mind. Sometimes I can't."

Next theory. Is the man on his way to breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak hurt? Would he admit it if he were?

"This has been a tough year physically," he said. "I've been hit with a few pitches in some areas that have lingered. I was hit in the elbow and that stayed with me. Then I got hit in the back, and that crops up now and again. I don't think that's the problem. That's the kind of stuff a lot of people have. I don't cling to that as an explanation."

Finally, the Pepe Frias theory. It should be pointed out that in the four seasons before 1991, Ripken hit .252, .264, .257 and .250 respectively. So, his batting average isn't that suspect.

But he also averaged, in what was considered a string of off seasons, 23 homers, 89 RBI and 50 extra-base hits. This year, he's projecting 14 homers, 74 RBI and 43 extra-base hits. Last year, of course, he hit .323 with 34 homers, 114 RBI and 85 extra-base hits.

"It's been a funny year in certain respects," Ripken said. "I don't have all the answers. If last year didn't happen, I might think it's a matter of declining skills. But after last year, that doesn't make sense.

"Before last year, I know I was guilty of trying too hard, trying to make too many things happen. Then I had the year last season where I stayed hot almost the entire year, and now I don't know. Maybe I'm trying too hard now. We're in a pennant race and you want to contribute."

The way things are going, there may not be much of a pennant race left. Ripken says he plays with the hope that there's time to get hot. Meanwhile, people are left to wonder how Ripken's power seems to have disappeared.

Johnny Oates is wondering. He said of the slump: "It's the eighth wonder of the world."

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