In end, Ripken will get his numbers, both on field and dotted line

KEN ROSENTHAL

May 19, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Eli Jacobs can forget it if he's secretly hoping Cal Ripken has a bad year. Ripken might be slumping now, but he'll get his 25 homers and 90 RBIs, commanding the big money he so rightly deserves. Whether Jacobs gives it to him is another matter.

From a baseball perspective, the more compelling question is whether Ripken will ever produce another offensive season like 1991. The answer is probably not, which is why it's so unfair to judge him against the standards he set last season.

Ripken's .323 average, 34 homers and 114 RBIs were not simply career highs, they were numbers that far exceeded his previous standards. Baseball offers a universal term to describe such dramatic breakthroughs.

Career year.

"Junior hitting .320 is not the norm," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said before last night's 8-4 loss to Oakland. "Look at Junior's track record. He's a .270 hitter, an 80-90 RBI guy.

"Last year was an MVP year for him. Are we going to judge Junior on what he did nine years in a row, or what he did one year? He's going to hit 25 home runs, drive in 80-90 runs. He's done it nine of the 10 years he's been here."

Indeed, prior to last year, Ripken was a career .274 hitter who averaged 25 homers and 92 RBIs. Those statistics more accurately reflect Oates' expectations, if not the Baltimore baseball public's.

Now, with a new season nearly one-quarter complete, Ripken is batting .234 with four homers and 17 RBIs. If not for last year, this slump would be dismissed as a slow start. But last year Ripken hit .338 in April, and .349 in May.

Obviously, he's nowhere near that now. Last night he took two called third strikes with men in scoring position. A hit in either situation might have helped the Orioles complete their rally from a 6-0 deficit, but it wasn't Ripken's night.

He froze on Mike Moore's 3-2 slider to make the final out of the Orioles' three-run second inning with men on first and third. Then he laid off Moore's 2-2 fastball with two on and one out in the fourth, apparently thinking the pitch inside.

Plate umpire Jim Evans ruled it a strike, leaving Ripken disgusted. He wasn't the only Oriole to stumble on a night the club went 2-for-12 with men in scoring position, failing to take advantage of eight walks. But because of who he is, he stood out most.

The amazing thing is, the Orioles lead the AL East with the best record in the majors even though Ripken is struggling. Where would they be if he were hot? It's a silly question, for different players emerge during the normal ebb and flow of a season.

Surely, Ripken's time will come. At his present rate, he will finish with 18 homers and 74 RBIs, but one hot streak will raise those projections to their normal levels. It's still so early, Ripken sees no reason why he can't approach his numbers from '91.

"I describe last year as a year everything went right," he said after going 0-for-4 with a walk. "I wouldn't say it was abnormal. Sometimes, you have those years. I think I'm capable of hitting .300. I haven't done it every year, but I've done it before."

In fact, he has done it three times, and as recently as spring training, he appeared quite capable of doing it again. Ripken batted .366 in Florida with two home runs and a club-high 17 RBIs, pounding the ball as convincingly as he did in '91.

"Coming out of spring training, I didn't think I'd be where I am now," Ripken said. "It was a continuation of last year. I felt comfortable. I was swinging the bat well. I didn't think I'd be struggling and searching like I am so far."

So, what happened?

Ripken isn't certain, claiming, "I wish it was an exact science, like everyone thinks it is." Perhaps he was bothered by a series of minor injuries in April. Or perhaps he needs to adjust his stance, as indicated by a split-screen comparison shown on television last weekend.

Ripken appeared less erect in his '91 stance, and Oates said the idea of studying past videotapes might have "some merit." Whatever the answer, it seems highly doubtful Ripken will revert back to the "old" Cal, the one who batted .256 from 1987-90.

At 31, he's too experienced, too smart. Strange as it sounds, his biggest problem might be that the Orioles are playing so well. Last year's club fell behind so early and so often, opposing pitchers had no qualms about challenging Ripken.

Now their thinking probably is back to where it was in '89: Don't let Ripken beat you. A rejuvenated Glenn Davis could alter that equation, but for now clubs prefer to take their chances against lesser players such as Randy Milligan and Sam Horn.

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