Ripken's season, like All-Star Game, is one big hit

JOHN EISENBERG

July 10, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- Another night, another two hits, another home run, and you wonder: When is it going to end? Next week? Next season? Never? Is Cal Ripken just on a long and winding roll? Or did he uncover some transcendent secret in the off-season? Some personal thou-shalt with the power to turn a .275 hitter into a terror?

Just what is the extent of this splendid business we're watching this season? These are questions worth asking now, especially after his two magnificent days here. Ripken never has looked like this with a bat in his hand. No, not even in 1983, when he hit .318 and was the MVP of the American League, did he look this strong and cocksure and positive.

You can see it in his swing, in his eyes, in his body language, in the manner that he strides toward the pitches -- he has, at least for now, pretty much solved the largely impossible matter of hitting major-league pitching. Every pitch looks fat. Every swing feels perfect. Just about every hit is square, unsplintered, accompanied by a pure, perfect crack.

How long can it last? There is no telling, of course. This game is capricious, as devilish as a summer storm -- a batter's transcendent answer can turn back into question from one day to the next. No one is more aware of that than Ripken, who was so worried about ruining his stroke that he didn't want to hit in the All-Star home run-hitting contest Monday.

He needn't have worried, it turns out, and if there is a lesson for him to take from these two days of All-Star hullabaloo, it is that his stroke is utterly resistant right now, as immune to subversion as a popular dictator. Maybe it will last. Maybe it won't. But what a sight it is right now.

You would have thought he couldn't top the headline-hunting act he put on Monday, when he put a dozen balls in the stands in a home run-hitting contest, a display that flabbergasted no one more than Ripken himself. But then he planted a three-run homer over the center-field fence in the game itself last night, providing the biggest hit in a 4-2 American League win and earning Ripken the game's MVP award.

His old teammate, Montreal's Dennis Martinez, aided the process considerably by hanging a belt-high, batting-practice, suitable-for-whomping curveball. But Ripken mashed it for more than even it deserved. He wasn't five steps from the plate when he slowed down, knowing it was a homer. The ball traveled 416 feet and disappeared over the blue, padded fence.

"I was hot coming into the game, which helps," Ripken said. "In hindsight I guess the home run-hitting contest really got me into the right groove for this. It was a breaking ball, I see it really well and I put a good swing on it."

It had been a decade since an Oriole hit a home run in the All-Star Game, but if ever you could see one coming, this was it. First came his dozen-in-a-day show Monday. Then, in his first at-bat last night, he singled sharply up the middle off Tom Glavine with his first swing, demonstrating fully that he needn't have worried about his stroke, that it wasn't fleeting.

Even when he grounded out in his third and last at-bat, almost hitting into a double play, he hit the ball hard, very hard, just about as well as anyone else did all night. The truth is that every one of his at-bats looks pretty much the same these days. He stands at the plate, bouncing gently on his knees, almost the beginning of a squat. It is a stance he arrived at in the off-season, after years of tinkering. It has become his piece of magic.

"It gives me a lot more balance at the plate, keeps me nice and loose there, enables me to wait longer on the ball and use my hands a little more than I used to," he said. "In the past, my body was in the way too much."

Of course, everyone would be "doing the Cal" right now if the maddening art of hitting could be so fully and easily explained by technique. It can't. There is a mental aspect that is equally important. Ripken wasn't a confident hitter last year. Now he is, and has been from the first day of spring training. You can see it in his eyes. Come on, ball.

"I'm hot right now," he said last night. "I've been hitting the ball well lately. Still, I surprised myself a little bit the last couple of days. To hit all those balls out yesterday, I don't know what happened there. To hit one out tonight and win the MVP, that's a real thrill."

You can't exactly say that the baseball world discovered him here, for his name has long been one of the game's most prominent, but, certainly, the baseball world did get a fine glimpse of the spectacular show he has been putting on all season.

"It was a perfect match," said American League manager Tony La Russa. "He's a great player and he's having a great year, so what do they do in games like this? They do great things. I'm happy he did it. He's swinging the bat great right now. But right now my thoughts are that starting Thursday [when the Orioles play at Oakland] we're going to have to get him out, and that's ruining the night for me."

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