If the last Orioles baseball season was really one to remember, aside from the swan song at Memorial Stadium, it was due only to one player: Cal Ripken Jr. No. 7. An immortal in the making. Club leader. Fans' favorite. The best of the Birds.
There is a tendency in baseball to get lost in the numbers, which seem to have become increasingly arcane and arbitrary. Isn't he the only shortstop ever to hit over 30 homers while striking out fewer than 50 times? (Yes.) Could he be the only shortstop in history to handle more than 800 chances in the field while accumulating more than 350 total bases at bat? (Please don't ask us to look it up.)
Statistics such as these are being generated these days in a dizzying array and in bizarre combinations to quantify a simple fact: Ripken is both a marvelously productive hitter and a superior fielder at the game's most demanding defensive position.
He deserves the recognition, announced yesterday, as the American League's Most Valuable Player. It is even more of a tribute that he won the award in spite of another poor season by the Orioles. Sportswriters selecting the MVP give great weight to players who lead their teams to (or at least near) championships, and no one had ever won the American League award while playing on a team that lost more games than it won.
Beyond his hitting and his fielding, there is, of course, The Streak: 1,573 consecutive games played, ranking second on the all-time list behind Lou Gehrig. Beyond that, Cal Ripken approaches the game with an unrelenting professionalism. Off the field, he maintains a drink-your-milk image and loves his home town by doing things for it.
The initial Ripken seasons contained such promise -- he followed the Rookie of the Year award in 1982 with MVP honors in 1983 -- that fans have tended to criticize him in years when he was merely very good. His superb 1991 season is a reminder that in Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore fans have a chance to watch the career of a player who will be remembered as one of the best ever to play the game.
When the new stadium opens down at Camden Yards, No. 7 will again be at shortstop. It is enough to make any season one to remember.