Cal streaking toward respectability again?


NEW YORK -- Three years ago, Cal Ripken was batting .209 on June 9, and the prospect of playing in the All-Star Game with such a low average embarrassed him. It was then that he began making the adjustments that led to his remarkable 1991 season.

Now history is repeating, and just in time. Ripken has hit two home runs in three games since changing his stance from a crouch to a more upright position. His seventh-inning, bases-empty shot last night broke a 6-6 tie to lift the Orioles to an 8-6 victory over the New York Yankees.

Ripken needs a surge, and he needs it now. He's two years away from breaking Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games. If he remains in the lineup and continues hitting like a scrub, the streak will become a source of national ridicule.

As if that's not troubling enough, Ripken is the franchise player on a team where the manager raises the issue of leadership seemingly every other day. Johnny Oates never mentions Ripken by name, but he might as well just scream, "Where's Cal?"

The question is one of many defining the Orioles' awful season, and it's not going away. Ripken apologists say he prefers to lead by example. That's all well and good, except when you're batting .214 for a club that needs a good kick in the rear.

Thus, Ripken is at another crossroads, and the clamor around him will only intensify if things don't keep improving. Yes, he plays every day without complaint, a singular achievement in baseball's big-money era. But if he isn't hitting, and isn't leading, he, too, must be held accountable.

The good news is, Ripken said his frustration level has not been as deep as it was in 1990, when he questioned whether his ability was diminishing. "I don't doubt that now," he said. "I learned enough about myself to know at this stage, it's not a physical deficiency. It's totally different."

Still, the Orioles invested $30.5 million in Ripken, and until this sudden revival -- Ripken went 2-for-5 last night, and twice was robbed of hits when Yankees second baseman Pat Kelly shifted up the middle -- the contract was starting to look like an albatross.

Oates said last week that Ripken might be at a point in his career where he won't hit as many home runs. If that's the case, the club not only needs a No. 4 hitter to replace Glenn Davis, but a new No. 3 hitter as well.

Meanwhile, Ripken keeps inching closer toward Gehrig. He is now within 352 games of the Iron Horse, and remains on target to pass him in June 1995. But if he suddenly turns into a .220 hitter, his critics who charge that he's engaged in a selfish, trivial pursuit would have a field day.

The streak is a hot topic of debate even in good years. Indeed, the "Elias Baseball Analyst" once dismissed it as a test of will, not skill. That's not completely accurate, because Ripken is good enough to play every day. Still, the negative perception will only grow if his struggles continue.

Gehrig didn't limp toward 2,130 -- he hit .351 with 37 homers and 159 RBI two years before his streak ended, .295 with 29 homers and 114 RBI in his last full season. In case you're wondering, he was a .340 lifetime hitter who hit 493 home runs and drove in 100 or more runs 13 straight seasons.

Ripken plays a more demanding position in a more demanding era, and it can be argued that his streak is already more impressive than Gehrig's. It also can be argued that he remains one of the best shortstops in the game, and for that reason deserves to play even when he's not hitting.

Then again, if Ripken keeps going into two-month funks, that rationale will start to sound like an excuse. Ripken loves the streak -- don't you dare believe otherwise -- but he hates the attention it brings. He has said publicly that he doesn't want to cheapen it in any way.

It's not Ripken's style to be a vocal leader, and perhaps nothing can change that. Still, the Orioles gave him $30.5 million to be their cornerstone. It's not unreasonable for them to expect more.

What's the answer? Very simple. Ripken must turn it around. He's one of the most analytical players in the game, and surely he's considering all the dispiriting possibilities before him. Three years ago, he thought his career might be over. He rededicated himself, to astonishing results.

It happened once, and maybe now it's happening again. This is Cal Ripken we're talking about, not some journeyman. All he needs to do is step forward. With his bat. With his heart. With all the inner resolve that made him a great player before.

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