Ripken, MVP second time, did it his way

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 20, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Take a day off, that's what everyone told Cal Ripken. Take a day off, and your batting average won't sag in September. Take a day off, and you won't look so tired when the season ends.

Ripken, the Oriole shortstop, ignored his critics' advice last season, but he actually made one minor concession, often skipping pregame batting practice in the final month.

For this he risked being disowned by his father, Cal Ripken Sr. -- the crusty third-base coach whose motto is not merely "practice makes perfect," but "perfect practice makes perfect."

Suffice it to say that Rip Sr. is now at ease. Suffice it to say his son is now owed 1,573 apologies, one for each game in his remarkable consecutive-games streak.

Ripken, 31, is the first American League Most Valuable Player from a losing team, and he won the award by saving his best for last, rapping hit after hit in the season's final days.

This year, at last, he was September Born, a marathoner sprinting the final mile. Forget about his taking a day off, and while we're at it, forget about his moving to third base, too.

He's MVP again. His way, going away.

No one dares question the local boy from Aberdeen now. Indeed, when the long-awaited announcement came at 6 o'clock last night, it gave this strapped region a Most Vicarious Pleasure in its autumn of economic gloom.

Ripken's next contract probably will earn him $5 million a year, but construction workers applauded as he arrived for a news conference at the new downtown ballpark with his wife, Kelly, and daughter, Rachel.

It was the first classic moment at Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- Ripken holding his blond-haired daughter, his daughter clutching stuffed animal, three days shy of her second birthday.

The lights were on, the November air was warm, the B&O warehouse loomed beyond right field. "We could play tonight," said Oriole general manager Roland Hemond, visibly excited.

Ripken, too, was impressed, and he later took the field in his sweater and slacks. But upon first inspecting the infield, he joked, "I want to see the grass trimmed a bit so my ground balls get through."

Nearly every one of his grounders found a hole last season, but he was not considered a prohibitive favorite for his second MVP award, despite his .323 average, 34 homers and 114 RBIs.

As it turned out, not even the Orioles' sixth-place finish could ruin his chances. No standout candidate emerged from the two division champions, and Ripken was utterly dominant in the final month as contender after contender faded.

Runner-up Cecil Fielder of Detroit led the majors in homers and RBIs for the second straight year, but he might have lost the award when Ripken drove in 11 runs in four games at Tiger Stadium on the season's next-to-last weekend.

Ripken had batted a combined .209 his previous three Septembers. This season he batted .349, and his eight homers and 27 RBIs were his most of any one month.

Maybe he should skip batting practice more often.

His pregame preparation in September often consisted of shagging fly balls with Oriole pitchers and participating in their windsprints. He wanted to forget his past finishes, wanted to keep the game fun.

"I had to jump him and [reliever Gregg] Olson a couple times toward the end of the year for playing football in the outfield," Oriole manager John Oates said from his home in Richmond, Va. "I'd look out there, and Olson was the quarterback, he was the receiver and [outfielder] Brady Anderson was the defensive back."

Ripken wasn't exactly on vacation; he continued his custom of never missing infield practice. It's a good thing, for otherwise his father might have chased him down with a fungo bat.

"I stayed away from my dad during that period," Ripken admitted, smiling. "I thought he would say, 'You're not taking batting practice, it's going to hurt you.'

"Sometimes, it's a negative having your dad there. I never thought I'd say that, but I know how he is, I know how he feels about practice.

"I was at the point where I was kind of desperate, in a situation where no one could help me. I had to try some things on my own."

That, of course, is the approach Ripken first adopted in June 1990, when his average sank to .209. Although he was still averaging 20 homers and 80 RBIs, it was his fourth straight year of offensive decline.

He wondered: Were his best years behind him? Was his career winding down?

"To let you know how frustrated I was, those thoughts came into my mind, that I might not be able to play that long," Ripken said.

So, he rededicated himself to greatness. Sought instruction from RTC Frank Robinson. Spent the offseason in his private batting cage. Got hot in spring training, knocked everyone out at the All-Star Game, locked up the MVP in September.

Time for a day off, Cal.

You're exhausted, right?

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