WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Cal Ripken has to know it will be tough to come up with a suitable encore to his 1991 Most Valuable Player performance, but he apparently isn't backing down from the challenge.
He drove in two runs with a single and a long double in his first two at-bats yesterday to lead the Orioles to an 8-3 exhibition victory over the Montreal Expos at Municipal Stadium. When he finally made an out, it was on a sharp line drive to center field.
Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?
The roll continues. Ripken, who trashed Grapefruit League pitching last March and went on to bat .323 during the regular season, is having another spring fling. The two hits yesterday raised his exhibition batting average to .462 and the two RBI gave him 10 in just nine games. He ranks among the major-league leaders in several offensive categories.
It might be too early to draw any sweeping conclusions from all this, but it is not too early to conclude that Ripken was success
ful in his off-season attempt to preserve the solid hitting mechanics that carried him to the most productive offensive season of his career. He's back, and he is giving every indication that 1991 was no statistical aberration.
"I tried to keep things going by hitting in the off-season," Ripken said. "So far in spring training, I've been pretty happy. Things have gone well. I don't know any other way to describe it."
Three months on the banquet circuit could not stop him. He managed to squeeze in his hours in the batting cage between appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman" and "The Arsenio Hall Show." He has always been diligent about his winter workouts, but he learned the year before how valuable those hours with the pitching machine can be. It was in the cage that he redesigned his approach at the plate and laid the groundwork for last year's tremendous performance.
"Last winter, I was trying to work on things and train myself a certain way," he said. "This year, I was just trying to keep things the same."
Sounds simple, but it's not. The modern pitching machine is a sophisticated invention, but it still cannot simulate game conditions, at least not entirely. It is a tool that has to be used correctly, or the results may not be so impressive.
"You have to realize hitting off a machine that it's not like hitting off a pitcher," Ripken said. "It can be as counterproductive as it can be productive. You have to concentrate on not falling into the timing of the machine. You don't want to get into bad habits."
That apparently was not a problem, judging from the results he has gotten during the first two weeks of the Grapefruit League season. He entered yesterday's game ranked seventh among major-league hitters in batting average, fifth in RBI and fifth in on-base percentage (.500). All of those numbers improved with his 2-for-3 performance against the Expos.
Manager John Oates is as impressed as anyone with Ripken's 12-month hitting spree, but he isn't greedy. He would love to see NTC his No. 3 hitter launch another 34 homers and drive in another 114 runs, but he obviously doesn't want to set up an
environment where a lesser -- but still solid -- season would be considered a disappointment.
"He's been hitting that way for 10 years," Oates said. "He has had 10 good years. Any of the years he had the past 10 years would be acceptable to me. I wouldn't throw any of them back."
True enough, Ripken has been one of baseball's most productive players since he was the American League's Rookie of the Year in 1982. He won his first MVP award a year later, but last year was clearly his most impressive season at the plate, and it came without an Eddie Murray hitting behind him.
He was supposed to have Glenn Davis to protect him, but it didn't seem to affect him when Davis missed most of the season with a serious neck injury. Now, Davis is back and Ripken is in excellent position to pick up where he left off last year.
The Orioles appear to be in better position to take advantage of his offensive production, which went largely to waste last year. The starting rotation that unraveled so completely last year has been reinvented for 1992, and it has carried the club to a 9-3 record through the first 12 exhibition games. The offensive lineup should also be improved, though a lack of run production was not the reason the club finished sixth in 1991.
"The way we're all playing is very encouraging," Ripken said. "We're doing a lot of the little things to win. We're bunting guys over. Moving people into scoring position. A lot of people are contributing.
"You realize that it's only spring training, but it's still the same game. When the season starts, hopefully we'll go about it the same way."