Sorry, Brooks, but Ripken is the best Oriole there ever was

John Steadman

July 19, 1991|By John Steadman

Stand back for an objective look at the Baltimore Orioles. Evaluate what Cal Ripken Jr. has achieved and there's only one conclusion: He's the best in the history of the franchise.

Brooks Robinson stands as the signature player in the annals of the Orioles, the standout performer who had an exceptional career, encompassing 20 years of extraordinary service. But Ripken, in half that time, has entwined himself in the fiber of Baltimore baseball.

There have been some superb Orioles, including the other Robinson, first name Frank; Eddie Murray and John "Boog" Powell. But Ripken is doing more on the field with glove and bat than any modern Oriole. The mere mention of Cal Ripken Jr. represents the personification of excellence -- plus the fact he carries himself with exemplary professionalism.

He practices so hard that come the latter part of the schedule, the physically draining days of August and its oppressive heat, it's necessary to slow him down. His father wisely suggests he conserve energy and tries to get him to ease up in pre-game practice. But he keeps coming back for more.

Ripken is a constant. He shows up to do his work with little rhetoric surrounding the effort and gives of himself to the ultimate degree. As of tonight, he will be playing in his 1,500th straight game, chasing after the ghost of Lou Gehrig, who put 2,130 consecutive games in the record book more than half a century ago.

Let's not minimize the fact Ripken plays the most demanding position on the infield, where he absorbs ground balls with the surest of hands, drifts into short leftfield and down the third base line to handle pop flies, makes the pivot on double plays and handles cutoff plays from the outfield. And when he throws out of the hole he gets enough on the ball to knock down the first baseman.

Some years ago, a prominent track coach at the University of Pennsylvania, involved with the Olympics, made an in-depth study to determine which sport required the most athletic ability. His analysis showed a shortstop had to make more moves that required exacting coordination than any participant in baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey or boxing.

Ripken offers evidence to such a hypothesis. He's smooth defensively, endowed with one of the strongest arms of any Oriole infielder they ever had and plays opposing hitters with exceptional judgment. When he didn't receive the Golden Glove Award in 1990, it was a travesty. Too bad the sportswriters didn't do the voting; they would have gotten it right.

The managers and coaches not only didn't pick him as the best defensive shortstop but listed him in third place behind the Chicago White Sox's Ozzie Guillen and the Toronto Blue Jays' Tony Fernandez. Brooks Robinson, who won 16 Golden Gloves at third base, said he felt embarrassed for himself when Ripken wasn't afforded the same honor.

Although not reputed for his power, he has struck 244 home runs in not quite 10 full seasons. That kind of production rarely comes from a shortstop, except in the case of Ripken. He's currently drawing the full concentration of rival pitching staffs, who are throwing him everywhere but "low and behind."

The two Robinsons, both in the Hall of Fame, gave the Orioles exceptional offensive punch and if Ripken continues at the rate he's going he'll surpass them in home run totals. Stop to consider, too, that Cal isn't playing for the high-caliber teams the Robinsons were a part of during their Baltimore tenures -- which lends additional emphasis to what he's doing.

Some critics insist he shouldn't be playing every game and would find it helpful to find a seat on the bench, where he could pull his cap down over his eyes, and take a nap. But he laughs that off by saying, "I thought the idea of being on a baseball team was to come to the park to play -- not watch." Teams are telling themselves before every series they need to find a way to get him out. But they better go back and try something different because whatever it is they're doing isn't working.

Cal Ripken Jr., the son of parents who were outstanding athletes, father Cal and mother Violet, has in not yet 10 years reached a summit of success that no other Oriole has been able to attain at a comparative stage. Wait until he peaks. The best is yet to come.

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