Has swing gone soft for O's iron man?


When the All-Star Game comes to Camden Yards in tw months, Cal Ripken will start at shortstop for the American League. That's an honor assured by his iron-man myth, which is so outsized that Sports Illustrated called him a living legend two years ago.

But try a little experiment. Don't look at the name and number on the uniform. Don't think about the myth. Consider the hard numbers that constitute the reality of Ripken at age 32:

He has batted .248 in the 199 games since the end of his MVP season in 1991. And in some 500 at-bats since near the end of last June -- virtually an entire season -- he has hit but six home runs.

Such numbers do not match the myth, of course. Nor do they come close to the numbers being rung up by Detroit shortstop Travis Fryman, who probably would start the All-Star Game if the honor were chosen on evidence.

Amid the many vagaries engulfing the Orioles this season, the one constant is that Ripken will always be in the lineup. But what does that mean now? Just what are we dealing with here?

We're dealing with a wise, elegant ballplayer who still fields his position as well as anyone and can still compile credible offensive numbers for which many major-leaguers would trade. Remember, his 14 homers and 72 RBI a year ago were career lows.

But with six homers in 500 at-bats, and with that dull average that won't go away, it's certainly fair to wonder if his days as a big-bat, power-hitting shortstop are over.

Maybe it's just a glitch, a temporary outage. Ripken is liable to hit 10 home runs and bat .400 for the next month as soon as someone believes he's incapable of it. That's baseball, in which today's article of faith is usually tomorrow's mistaken pronouncement. On the other hand . . .

"Maybe," manager Johnny Oates said before last night's game against the Indians at Camden Yards, "he's at the point in his career where he isn't going to hit home runs anymore."

He was on a pace to hit 20 for the 11th straight year in 1992 when he suddenly lost his power stroke in June. He's still looking for it. What's gone wrong is a bafflement. Nagging injuries? A power loss? Sagging confidence? Who knows?

In any event, as they say on the 11 o'clock news, it's certainly a development. "When he's hitting well lately, he's using the whole field," Oates said, "and that isn't conducive to hitting home runs."

Not that Oates cares. Or so he insisted.

"With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the ninth, he's still the player I want up there," the manager said. "He can still drive in plenty of runs without hitting homers. And RBI are what we really need [from the middle of the order]."

Of course, Ripken hasn't been particularly adept there, either, as attested by his .235 average with runners in scoring position this year. He drove in two last night in the Orioles' win, but without hitting the ball out of the infield.

And, in any case, the club does need him to hit more homers than this. It's just basic baseball sense: You can't win without a potent middle of the order. The Orioles learned that lesson last year, painfully. And with Glenn Davis basically washing out this year, it becomes a must that Ripken produce. There's no one else.

"It's only natural for Cal to feel the burden of trying to carry the ballclub every night," Oates said. "He's our veteran, our leader. And because of who he is, he's going to feel the need to do it himself. And it's impossible for anyone to do that."

That's true. Just as it's true that a fair portion of that burden came attached with the $30.5 million contract Ripken signed last year. Again, it's just basic baseball sense: your $6 million man should lead you. Living up to that can't be easy.

But it's about time to stop making excuses, isn't it? Ripken has said that the pressure of the contract negotiations affected him at the plate last year. But he's all signed up this year. There's no extra baggage this year. Isn't it time to deliver?

Oates is determined not to let the brunt of the burden fall on his shortstop. "What's wrong with our offense isn't player A, B, C or D; it's all of them," Oates said. The whole alphabet.

True. And maybe none of this is fair. If you throw out the MVP year, Ripken has hit .250 in three of the past four years. The MVP year sent expectations through the roof, but maybe it's wrong to expect more. Maybe his steadiness, subtlety and solid production should suffice.

Then again, it's perfectly reasonable to expect more than six homers in 500 at-bats.

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