Ripken's numbers worth zeroing in on

JOHN EISENBERG

August 25, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

You will notice that Cal Ripken's clunker of a season has, well, lost its clunk.

You will notice that he's up to 20 homers and 76 RBI, surpassing last year's totals and putting 25 and 100 within reach.

You will notice that his batting average, formerly the talk of the town, has risen 35 points in 50 days.

You will notice that Travis Fryman, who supposedly should have replaced him in the All-Star lineup, is now marking time at third base.

You will notice the moral of the story: That the Orioles' shortstop was born at the wrong time. That his indelible markings of consistency, competency and subtlety are not meant for this age of talk-show hysteria, instant gratification and general impatience.

What have you done for me lately? That's not the question to ask about Ripken, who turned 33 yesterday. He's all about inevitability and the long haul; about waiting for final results, not grading partial results; about the lesson of a track record spanning a decade, not a couple of months.

"His numbers will be right on target this year," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said yesterday. "It's the one sure thing we've got. When he was going bad early on, I said he'd be there in the end. That's the difference between fans and managers. I couldn't say that Brady [Anderson], who has only done it one year, would be there in the end. But Cal has done it 12 years. At some point you should begin to get the point."

The Orioles' one sure thing. And no, Oates isn't talking about a 35-homer, 125-RBI season. What Ripken will deliver this year is essentially what he has produced in eight of his 12 seasons in the bigs. He is a consistent run-producer with respectable power. He doesn't hit for a high average. He sets a fabulous example, one any team would want, by playing the game right. Is this so complicated?

Granted, it was fair to speculate about his skills possibly diminishing when, coming off his worst year, he was hitting .215 right before the All-Star break. Oates wondered aloud one day about Ripken's days as a power hitter possibly being over. But Ripken changed his batting stance to an upright position and rediscovered a productive stroke.

All along it was kind of funny, though. His low average was Topic A, but his average is the stat about which Oates cares the least. All the manager wants from Ripken is homers and RBI.

"I've had guys hit .300 and not help the team win because they can't produce runs," Oates said. "Cal, because of who he is, gets a lot of attention when he doesn't. But he almost always does in the end. You always get back around to that with him."

It was a year ago yesterday that he signed the $30.5 million contract that, fairly or not, altered what the public was going to expect from him. In that sense the contract was trouble from day one. Big-money players get criticized if they don't deliver quantifiable results, and Ripken was never going to post Barry Bonds-like numbers.

But that is where you get back to him being born at the wrong time. So much of what Ripken adds to the Orioles, what makes him worth every penny, is not quantifiable, not fodder for the highlight shows. The highlight shows don't zero in on proper fundamentals, guile, wise decision-making, old-fashioned hustle. The threads that keep a team together.

"There are a thousand ways he helps us," Oates said. "He runs every ball out, hard. You want your team seeing that. And things like setting defenses. Knowledge. How to pitch to people. If we pitch so-and-so high and in, where's he likely to hit off McDonald? Things like that. I would say there are players even in the game who don't realize how much he does."

The highlight shows don't zero in on players who win games because of positioning on relays. Or because of what they don't do, such as not losing concentration and flubbing routine ground balls, or not making base-running mistakes.

You want to see the essence of Ripken's value? Watch him run the bases. He's one of the Orioles' slowest players, and among their most effective base runners.

"We've got fast guys who can't get from first to third like Cal," Oates said. "Because they don't know who is playing right field and how good his arm is and how hard the ball was hit and how many bounces it should take. His knowledge and judgment are just outstanding."

The highlight shows will always zero in on the current state of his numbers, of course, baseball being a prisoner of numbers now. And more than a few people will look at the numbers and wonder what all the fuss is about.

They'll never get it.

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