Ripken takes silent stance to another 'average' year Oriole stands up to be counted, but shies from numbers

August 31, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- What started out as a continuation of his year of discontent rapidly is turning into an above-average season for Cal Ripken -- except for his average.

In case you've been out of touch for the last decade or so, above average in this case is a whole lot more than respectable. Just don't talk about the subject too loudly in Ripken's presence.

"Don't mention numbers," said the Orioles' All-Star shortstop, looking ahead to the three-game series against the California Angels that opens here tonight. No doubt he doesn't have to be reminded that he's on a pace to hit 28 home runs with 99 RBI -- he just prefers not to dwell on the subject.

A career .277 hitter going into this season, Ripken's average is only .252, but that hardly reflects what's been going on during the past three months. On May 28 his average had bottomed out at .199.

It was about that time that Ripken abandoned the much-publicized crouch stance he'd used during his monster year in 1991 (.323, 34, 114). In retrospect, he says now that he probably should have made the adjustment a year ago, when he went from the peak to the valley (.251, 14, 72).

"I was trying to find something that worked in '91, something that would enable me to duplicate that year," said Ripken, who has three home runs in the past three games. "I was probably stubborn to stay with it.

"When you get frustrated, you can't be afraid to change your mechanics to get you to the point where your natural ability takes over. That's something I forgot somewhere along the way."

To those who have watched him throughout his career, the various batting stances he's used in the last few years represent the most obvious changes in Ripken. But hardly anyone associates his most recent change to his resurgence at the plate.

"The stance is the most obvious difference," said Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson, "but, to me, the real difference is that his confidence level is up.

"You can see it when he goes to the plate and in his approach to hitting. You get the impression that when he goes up to the plate he has the feeling that he's better than the pitcher. And that comes from having some success."

Robinson concurs with the thinking that hitters generally start making changes when they reach their early 30s (Ripken turned 33 Aug. 24). "You have to make some slight adjustments in your thinking and your approach. Some do it sooner than others -- and some do it smoother than others."

Because his average in particular has fluctuated dramatically the last few years, anytime Ripken changes his stance, even slightly, it has a tendency to become a headline. When he does something dramatic like going from a crouch to his current stand-up position, or vice versa, it becomes a major topic of debate.

In reality, Ripken points out that such an adjustment is as much mental as it is physical. It's a continuing search to find a comfort zone.

"If you take a picture before the pitcher throws the ball there's a big difference," he said. "But if you take a picture at the point of contact, it's the same."

Orioles hitting coach Greg Biagini offers support for Ripken's theory that the stance is only a starting point to get the bat in position at the proper time. And it's what Biagini doesn't see now that he thinks is primarily responsible for a slump that lasted more than a year.

"He's a lot 'quieter' now," said Biagini, referring to Ripken's actions at the plate, not his even-keel demeanor. "Before he had a lot of body movement and he got out in front a lot.

"Now when he gets to the ball, his body is back. I think he's been a little more selective, too. And he's definitely have more fun now," said Biagini.

Having fun, of course, is a term often used, but that translates directly to winning and having success.

Although they have struggled in the last month, the Orioles' rise in the standings this year coincided with Ripken's bat surge.

"I just think he's more relaxed, more confident," said manager Johnny Oates. "That only happens when you're having some success."

Within the last year Ripken has endured lengthy contract negotiations that culminated in his $30.5 million, five-year deal with the Orioles, seen both his father and brother removed from the clubhouse, and gone throughout a prolonged hitting drought. It was suggested that his consecutive game streak, now at 1,866, had taken its toll and that his productive years were behind him.

Only Ripken knows for sure how much, if at all, his performance might have been affected by private matters. But he has insisted repeatedly that outside issues do not affect his approach to the game.

With 31 games left in the 1993 season, Ripken is well on his way to another "normal" year. During the last 11 years he has averaged 25 home runs and 92 runs batted in.

And here's the remarkable part of this picture. If you throw out the last two years, his best and his worst, Ripken's average production over the other nine seasons is identical -- 25 home runs and 92 RBI.

This is one case where "average" equates to being consistently effective. Which is what Cal Ripken's career is all about.

RIPKEN ON REBOUND

Since his batting average hit its lowest point on May 28, Cal Ripken has added more than 50 points to his average in addition to improving drastically in his power hitting and run production.

The numbers:

Date .. .. .. ..Avg. .. .. .. ..HR .. .. .. ..RBI

May 28 .. .. . .199 .. .. .. ...4 .. .. .. .. 18

Aug. 31.. .. . .252 .. .. .. ...23 .. .. .. ...80

'93 (projected).252 .. .. ... ..28 .. .. .. ...99

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