Ripken's showcased season is his best ever, in variety of ways

John Steadman

July 12, 1991|By John Steadman

What the "season to remember" represents for Cal Ripken Jr. is the best ever. His best ever first half of the schedule. His best ever batting average, .348. His best ever home run total, 18.

And, hopefully, the best ever is yet to come.

It must be qualified by saying that Ripken, to this point in the year, has never been better. The All-Star Game became a powerful launching pad for an overwhelming recognition that has projected him into the public eye as never before.

This is his 10th year with the Baltimore Orioles, a member of a world championship team, a previous recipient of the Most Valuable Player award (1983) but, belatedly, he's being discovered by the masses. Shows what the All-Star show can do for a performer. Forget that it's an exhibition, and the statistics don't count.

The event served as a stage for baseball's finest performers and Ripken by his play was thrust to the forefront. A game

that didn't influence the record book became his private showcase. Not only is he chasing after the ghost of Lou Gehrig and the consecutive streak of playing in 2,130 games but he's doing other things that shortstops aren't expected to do.

He makes all the plays defensively and, unlike so many other shortstops, doesn't leave it at that. Shortstops, because they are such an important part of a team's composition, aren't expected to hit any more than their cap size.

So many of them wouldn't get in the park, or the lineup either, if they didn't bring their glove. But Ripken is dispatching line drives to all fields and connecting for power. The possibility exists he will break the home run mark for a shortstop in the American League, which is 40, set by Rico Petrocelli of the Boston Red Sox in 1969.

What an attainment that would be. But he has an even better chance of being the overall leader in batting average. The last shortstop to lead the league at the midway point was Lou Boudreau, who in 1948 was not only a strong threat with a bat in his hands but carrying out the responsibility of being a player-manager of the Cleveland Indians.

At the All-Star juncture, 43 years ago this summer, Boudreau was at .359 and the pressure of playing and managing never got to him. He completed the season with a mark of .355 and the Indians, the team he directed, won the pennant.

But Boudreau's outstanding demonstration in the batter's box still didn't qualify him for the batting title. That distinction went to Ted Williams, the stylish swinger who blazed his way down the stretch and finished with a league-leading .369.

That Ripken is on top shouldn't be a surprise. He has been there since June 3, which would seem to be ample notice that he's a serious contender to put together the kind of season the Ripken watchers are seeing. In training camp, he had his best ever preseason, batting .380.

So the signs were all there that he was returning to prime efficiency. A conservative type, he reflected on what most everyone considers a poor 1990. "That's true from an overall standpoint," he said, "but after the All-Star Game last summer some good things happened that told me I was coming out of the down period. I began hitting the ball sharper and to all fields.

"Frank Robinson offered a lot of help, along with hitting coach Tom McCraw and my father. What got me away from my natural swing was a desire to try to do more than I was capable of doing to make up for a lack of team offense."

So the over-swinging and trying to pull, rather than hitting the ball to all fields, created bad habits and the problems compounded themselves. He was in a bad mental approach when it came to facing pitchers but that has been corrected. The outlook is positive, the swing mechanics are natural, rather than contrived, and the results are to be savored.

Ripken has a flex in his knees, which gives him comfort, and moves the bat with a slight rotation while waiting on the pitch. It's all predicated on relaxation. His production, while playing the second most physically demanding position on a team, has been extraordinary.

Rival clubs will concentrate on getting him out and may even take to spinning his cap a few times. But what Cal Ripken Jr. has done thus far is, indeed, the best ever.

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