2-time victor is in Oriole class by self

John Steadman

November 20, 1991|By John Steadman

Every team has a signature player, the one performer who, because of extraordinary ability, becomes synonymous with the franchise . . . such as Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox, Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, Stan Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals, Henry Aaron and the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and, for all of baseball, Babe Ruth.

Now Cal Ripken Jr. emphatically qualifies as the most celebrated Baltimore Oriole because of his latest accomplishment -- the first two-time recipient of the American League's Most Valuable Player award in the history of the city and the team.

The MVP trophies exemplify the enormous skills of Ripken. He has surpassed two Hall of Fame players, Brooks and Frank Robinson, as the exceptional player who has excelled with bat and glove.

Collectively speaking, offensively and defensively, he stands alone.

In 10 years he has already come within nine home runs of matching Brooks' total for 20 seasons. Plus his lifetime batting average is better by 12 points and he has established defensive records for shortstops that stand alone.

During Brooks Robinson's illustrious career, he distinguished himself by playing third base as if he "came down from a higher league," to quote the late umpire Ed Hurley.

But Ripken has surpassed him at a more difficult position, shortstop. And if you don't think so, then check the bookends in his den. They look like MVP trophies.

"I still want to focus on being a better player next season and in the future," he said, which is a customary ambition for him. The importance is he means it. Right now, he is at the top of his game and it's difficult to conceive of him surpassing 1991.

Complacency won't be a factor because he's too driven for that to happen.

Pitchers tried everything, except shortening the distance to home plate, to get him out but stomped away in frustration. He was the only consistent force the Orioles had, which meant the opposition could concentrate on Ripken and take their chances with the rest of the lineup.

At no time did Cal appear overmatched.

To the contrary. He kept swinging away with a 35-inch, 33-ounce Louisville Slugger bat, thin-type handle, that felt and looked almost top-heavy. But it worked for Ripken to the extent of 34 home runs, 114 runs batted in and a .323 average.

The sportswriters who voted him the award were obviously paying attention, since it is unprecedented in the American League to pick a player from a sixth-place team. Without Ripken, the Orioles would have fallen out of the league.

Only a year ago, Ripken (Cal, not Bill), was coming away from an uncustomary .250 campaign that was the poorest he had experienced. He used the latter part of 1990 to get his batting fundamentals in place and to almost sacrifice the season to obtain piece of mind and build in confidence in what he was trying to do.

He thanks former manager Frank Robinson, his father Cal Sr. and former batting coach Tom McCraw for giving him a new philosophy and locating the theories he had somehow lost along the way. Maybe it was more mental than physical, as a result of trying to do more than one man should, considering the Orioles' otherwise anemic attack.

So what did he do in making changes? "I spread out more at the plate, put some flex in my knees and let the ball come to me rather than 'searching' for it. I used my hands more in the swing."

That's all rather basic, yet essential.

Cal carries himself with humility and doesn't allow adulation to alter his outlook on baseball and people. He takes it a game at a time and has been doing it for so long he's a threat to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive playing mark of 2,130 games.

He is truly "The Pride of The Orioles."

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