Coming up short goes with position

JOHN EISENBERG

July 07, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

OK, class, we'll start with a stumper today: Among American Leaguers at his position, this player is one of the top hitters, tied for first in home runs and triples, second in RBI, tied for second in doubles and third in runs and hits. Who is it?

Joe Carter, you say? Sorry. Albert Belle? Nope. Ken Griffey? Wrong.

OK, a few more clues. Among American Leaguers at his position, this player is first in walks, sixth in on-base percentage and, among the hitters possessing any kind of punch, has easily the lowest ratio of strikeouts to hits.

Carlos Baerga, you say? Sorry. Rob Alomar? Try again. Paul Molitor? Aw, you're getting cold, Rotisserie breath.

OK, OK, here's a big clue. The player's position is shortstop. We're talking about American League shortstops here. So, which one can brag about those relatively impressive offensive credentials?

Travis Fryman? It has to be Fryman, you say? Sorry. Ozzie Guillen? Wrong again. Maybe Mike Bordick, you say? Please. No, Alan Trammell is no longer at shortstop. And anyone who says Juan Bell gets a ruler across the wrist, hard.

OK, enough. It's answer time. Put down your coffee. You're in for a surprise. The mystery player is (drum roll) Mr. Two-Fifteen himself, checking in at shortstop on the All-Star team with a batting average only his brother could love, yes, everyone's favorite bull's-eye, the big guy himself . . . Cal Ripken.

Rip. The Ripster. The Ripmeister. One of the best shortstops ever. But one of the best-hitting shortstops in the league this year? Only in Johnny Oates' dreams.

Rip is, how shall we say this nicely, having a stinker this year. A lifetime .277 hitter, he was some 62 points below that mark as of yesterday. We've all watched him agonize. Watched him change his batting stance several times, clearly searching, and still ground out.

He's still the high Ripken -- brother Bill is checking in at .193 in Texas -- but that's about it. Of the 10 AL shortstops with at least 200 at-bats, Ripken has the worst batting average. By far. By 26 points.

Yet, when the word comes down today about the starting lineups for the All-Star Game next week at Camden Yards, Ripken will be one of the leading vote-getters.

It's not right, of course. It doesn't matter how many intangibles a player brings to the game, as Ripken surely does, or how adept his fielding is. No player hitting .215 belongs in the All-Star Game.

The low number, which may well get lower the way things are going, is sure to cause Ripken some embarrassment come Tuesday night. Here the game is finally in his town, the place he has owned for a decade, and that pops onto the scoreboard when he comes to bat?

But before dismissing this as another one of those goofy deals where the fans aren't paying attention, check out the other shortstops. It's crazy, but it's true: Even if the fans had nothing to do with selecting the team, Ripken would be one of the top contenders. Sorry average and all.

It's not a reflection on his performance so much as a reflection of the sorry state of shortstop (shortstopping?) in the American League. It's the worst position in either league this year. Their motto? We might not hit with power, but we can't hit for average. Or field particularly well.

The highest batting average in the class belongs to Omar Vizquel, who has one homer and 18 RBI. The highest number of homers and RBI belongs to Fryman, who has 18 errors and 70 strikeouts (to Rip's nine and 27). Guillen, Bordick, Gary DiSarcina, Greg Gagne, Felix Fermin and Spike Owen are all between .250 and .270, but they have only 13 homers among them and Ripken alone has 10.

So, if the All-Star shortstop isn't Ripken, who is it? Fryman? With all those errors? Vizquel? With eight extra-base hits, and half as many RBI as Ripken? DiSarcina or Gagne or Fermin? Aren't we talking about the All-Star Game here?

The truth is that none of these players really belongs, not when a Cecil Fielder or Frank Thomas or Mo Vaughn might get left off. But if two are going to make it, which is sort of the rule, Ripken is in the ballpark as a legitimate contender.

Fryman probably deserves to start; he's on his way to 100 runs and 100 RBI. And Vizquel, with just three errors and 92 hits, probably should be the backup. But if that's the top, Ripken's application -- with his fielding and halfway decent production offsetting his average -- isn't ridiculous.

Not that it matters, of course. Rip will start for the 10th straight year. It isn't right, but he'll probably hit a home run or something, and everyone would rather see Mr. Iron Man than Omar Vizquel anyway, and the All-Star Game is for the fans, so what are you going to do?

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