Metal of Ripken debate changes from iron to gold

March 18, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Cal Ripken finally has discovered something that draws attention away from The Streak.

And it should come as no surprise that the small favor comes complete with a tinge of controversy. That despite the fact Ripken is one of baseball's least controversial players, one of those who doesn't measure success by dollar signs.

The biggest knock against the Orioles' All-Star shortstop is that he has gone to work every day, 1,411 straight times to be precise. Many have questioned the effect of The Streak on his offense, but defense has never been part of that equation.

That part of Ripken's game is either generally overlooked or taken for granted. Last year he set major-league records for fielding percentage (.996), fewest errors in a season (3), consecutive games (95) and chances (431) without an error. But any talk of a Gold Glove continues to have a brassy sound.

The continued snub by Gold Glove voters (opposing managers and coaches) has to rank as a major disappointment for Ripken.

"Yes and no," said Ripken, who now finds himself fielding more questions about the Gold Glove than he does about The Streak. "A small part of you wants -- maybe even needs -- the recognition that says you did a good job.

"Everybody likes to be told that they did a good job, and that's what the Gold Glove represents," said Ripken. "But, a bigger part says you worked hard, did the job and don't need reinforcement."

It may come as a shock to some, but Ripken doesn't necessarily consider 1990 his best defensive season. "I question whether it was," said Ripken. "Certainly it was the best year for not making errors.

"But basically we had new pitchers and a fly ball-strikeout staff [the Orioles led the league in outfield putouts]. That didn't really allow me to learn the individuals as much as before, when we had a lot of ground ball pitchers.

"What I'd like to be able to do is combine 1984, when I made more errors but had a lot more chances, with last year."

In 1984 Ripken set an American League record with 531 assists and also led the league in putouts (267) and total chances (906). His 880 successful chances that year remain the most by a shortstop since Ozzie Smith had 909 in 1980.

"That year we had a predominantly ground ball staff that I could rely on as far as positioning and anticipation was concerned," said Ripken. "It was a very gratifying year. But since then, it seems we've gone through a multitude of changes."

Although the Orioles' staff doesn't figure to undergo much change, Ripken figures his added knowledge of the pitchers gives him a base upon which he could possibly improve over last year. However, he is realistic enough to understand that statistical improvement is virtually impossible.

As far as a Gold Glove is concerned, if Ripken couldn't win it last year, he's unlikely to ever receive that recognition. To put his 1990 season into perspective consider that Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson once made as many errors in an inning as Ripken did all year.

Despite the room he sees for possible improvement, Ripken isn't likely to build on last year's defensive numbers. Offensively, with the addition of Glenn Davis, it could be a different story.

"Having Glenn in the middle of the lineup will add stability -- just like Eddie (Murray) did," said Ripken, who entered last season averaging .277, 25.5 home runs and 93 RBIs but slipped to .250, 21 and 84. "But it goes beyond that. You put Glenn in the lineup in conjunction with Dwight Evans, with a Randy Milligan who has his feet on the ground, with Devo [Mike Devereaux] and Billy [Ripken] and the rest and it makes the whole lineup click."

The arrival of Davis, at least for the moment, means Ripken no longer holds the status as the Orioles' highest paid player. It also put to rest, again at least temporarily, the notion that the Orioles would not pay a player more than Ripken. He has two years left on a contract that will pay him in excess of $2 million each season, while Davis will earn $3.275 million this year.

"I don't have any reaction to those notions," said Ripken. "That doesn't affect -- shouldn't affect -- what happens on the field. The two sides of baseball, the business side and the playing side, are totally separate. I don't get involved in any of that, and I don't think about contracts."

Ripken said the only time he worried about a contract was early FTC in his career. "Everyone knows that an average career in baseball is four or five years, and that's kind of scary," he said. "You want to set up some security in the early years. That's the only time I ever really thought about it.

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