Cal's golden quest Despite his records, defensive honors elude Ripken

September 21, 1990|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

He has been a model of defensive consistency and excellence for nine years now, yet his performance has never been considered golden.

He has led his league in assists five times (including a major-league record 583 in 1984), putouts and double plays four times and total chances three times. Twice (1984 and 1989) he led in all four categories.

He has never won a Gold Glove -- and he isn't even the answer to a good trivia question.

It's no big secret that Cal Ripken is best recognized for hitting more home runs (214) than any shortstop in American League history. But go back and take another look at the second paragraph.

Those ratings were compiled in a seven-year period (1983-1989), not a career. Now ask this question: How many Gold Gloves would they have produced for a 5-foot-9 defensive specialist, as opposed to somebody 6-4 who is paid for his bat first, and then his glove?

Ripken just turned 30 last month, and he's now close to leading the league in the only two categories that have previously escaped him -- fewest errors and highest fielding percentage. If he succeeds he will establish two more records to go with the two he already set this year -- 95 straight games and 431 consecutive chances without an error.

The question is, will Ripken's extraordinary performance this year affect the thinking of opposing managers and coaches, who do the voting for Gold Glove awards?

Orioles manager Frank Robinson pondered the question for several seconds before answering. "No," he said with a wry smile that indicated managers and coaches are also creatures of habit.

Robinson did not say Ripken wouldn't win a Gold Glove, just that he felt the record-setting performances wouldn't necessarily alter the thinking.

"When managers and coaches vote on something like that, they don't look at statistics," admitted Robinson. "They review players in their mind and determine who they think is best based upon what they've seen."

And that, Robinson contends, is what hurts Ripken the most.

"They don't see him every day, and I think Cal is one of those players you have to see every day in order to appreciate what he does," said Robinson.

"I see him every day, and it's mind-boggling what he's done this year. I played with [Mark] Belanger when he made seven errors one year and I thought that was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen.

"But to go out there every day and have only three errors at this point in the season is almost unbelievable. If you're asking me if he deserves a Gold Glove -- yes, he does, off the year he's had. If I had a vote [voters are not permitted to name players from their own teams], there would be no question in my mind."

Though they are subtle, Robinson said there are similarities between Ripken and Belanger. "Soft hands," said Robinson. "Even on the tough plays, Mark had the ability to make them look routine. Cal is the same way; he knows how to make the difficult look easy."

Ripken's current fielding percentage is .995, which is three points higher than the record set a year ago, when Tony Fernandez committed an all-time low of six errors. Barring a bizarre finish, Ripken should break both of those records.

Coupled with his earlier errorless streak, and despite the fact his total chances are down this year (he will probably rank fourth or fifth), it should be enough to merit Ripken a Gold Glove. But his biggest drawback -- size -- is something he cannot hide, and maybe not overcome. There are quicker, more spectacular shortstops with better range -- but none of them are going to set four major-league records in one season.

Ripken has never tried to hide the fact he would like the defensive acceptance that a Gold Glove brings. For that reason the two records within his reach mean a lot, especially in a year that has been difficult for him offensively, despite a team-leading 79 runs batted in and 18 home runs on a team that has been run-deficient.

But, for the obvious reason that 12 games stand between him and a remarkable record, the eight-time All-Star won't talk about it, or a potential Gold Glove, prematurely.

"Let me put it this way," Ripken said after some thought, "I'll refrain from saying anything until after it is all over. That way, I don't have to speculate, or predict. When it's all over, then maybe I'll have a chance to reflect a little bit."

To date Ripken has averaged one error for every 50 games, which borders on the incredible at any position in the infield. But there is something else that Robinson finds even more amazing: Ripken has made only one fielding error all year. The other two were on errant throws.

"The only ball he mishandled was in Kansas City, which is one place I never expected it to happen [because of the artificial surface]," said Robinson. "And even on that one [a grounder between short and third], I'm not sure he could have completed the play if he had come up with the ball.

"It gives you an idea how close he could be to something totally unbelievable -- two throwing errors and a ground ball on which he might not have been able to throw out the runner."

In a season that has been filled with disappointments, from both an individual and team standpoint, Cal Ripken is on the verge of something special. But it remains to be seen if there will be any gold at the end of the rainbow.

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