Ripken-less game is calling, but O's can't bear to listen

June 17, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Cal Ripken turns 38 in August. His game appears in sharp decline. And his consecutive-games streak rolls on, a runaway train with no conductor.

Any other player in any other sport would be facing major questions about his future. Ripken isn't even facing questions about the end of his streak.

If Michael Jordan can discuss age and fatigue through the NBA Finals, why can't Ripken acknowledge that as an older player, his world, too, has changed?

For that matter, why can't the Orioles protect their future Hall of Famer from himself, and take steps that could help him remain as productive as possible?

The answer to both questions is fear.

Ripken is understandably afraid of the unknown -- he hasn't missed a game in more than 16 years, and has no idea if he would benefit from taking one or two days off a week.

The Orioles, meanwhile, are afraid of confronting a player who has meant so much to the organization, a player whose work ethic remains impeccable, a player who is notoriously stubborn and proud.

Ripken's play isn't the reason the Orioles are such a disappointment. Benching him wouldn't necessarily help the club in the short-term. And if his reflexes are the problem, it might not help at all.

Still, isn't it time everyone faced the cold, hard facts?

On the surface, Ripken's statistics appear presentable -- a .256 batting average, five homers and 32 RBIs, with only two errors at third base. But scratch deeper, and uncomfortable truths emerge.

Mike Bordick has more extra-base hits than Ripken -- Mike Bordick, the player whose mediocre bat was such a concern when the Orioles signed him to replace Ripken at shortstop last season.

Ripken has hit more grounders than any AL player, evidence that he no longer is driving the ball. His .179 batting average after the sixth inning is the league's second-lowest.

Adding Ripken's on-base average (.316) to his slugging percentage (.350) provides an even better measure of his offensive performance. Only three players in the AL ranked lower entering last night's games.

Defensively, Ripken's range has diminished markedly, with ground balls eluding him to his left and right. His fielding was once so strong, he was considered an asset even when he wasn't hitting. That no longer is the case.

Last month, Orioles manager Ray Miller said he would bench Ripken only if he "totally stopped hitting, totally stopped doing anything." Miller reiterated his stance last night.

"I've always said that I thought Cal would make the right decision when the time comes," Miller said before Ripken went 0-for-4 in the Orioles' 2-0 victory over the New York Yankees.

"When you sit in this [manager's] chair, it's inevitable someone is not going to write his name down. There would have to be really tremendous, terrible consequences [in his play] for a prolonged period. His game would have to go completely to pot for a while. I don't think that would ever happen. Cal's got too much pride."

Ripken declined to comment.

He's in a 10-for-52 slump, with only two walks in June. At his present pace, he will finish with 12 homers and 23 doubles (career lows for a full season) and 74 RBIs (his second-lowest total).

He hasn't "totally stopped hitting," but consider the Orioles' production at third base entering last night -- last in the AL in extra-base hits, next-to-last in slugging and tied for 10th in RBIs. Ripken has manned the position for all but 15 1/2 innings.

It's possible that he's simply in a slump, but this isn't a one-season phenomenon. In 147 games since the '97 All-Star break, Ripken has batted .246 with 11 homers and 59 RBIs. A herniated disk contributed to his lack of production in the second half of last season.

His lack of bat speed is apparent, yet Ripken proceeds with no questions asked, no objections raised, no solutions proposed. As usual, he's in unchartered territory. The Orioles can't cite any other player as precedent, that's for sure.

Brooks Robinson batted .201 the season he turned 38, but players today are far more sophisticated in their conditioning, and extend their careers to ages where they previously would have been retired.

Paul Molitor batted .341 with a career-high 225 hits the season he turned 40, but was used mostly as a DH. Wade Boggs batted .311 for a world championship Yankees club the season he turned 38, but missed 30 games.

Rickey Henderson, 39, entered last night leading the AL with 25 stolen bases. Tony Gwynn, 38, was third in the NL with a .346 batting average. Henderson had played in all but three of his team's games, Gwynn in all but nine. Not every one, but pretty darn close.

In sports as in life, age is the ultimate stretch runner, closing in on different people at different times, but catching everyone all the same. It would be only natural if Ripken ignores whatever footsteps he's hearing. He already has achieved the impossible.

One thing seems clear: No. 8 isn't going to end the streak on his own. And Miller, like every one of Ripken's previous managers, is uncomfortable tackling such a monumental issue.

The world has changed, and the Orioles act as if Ripken is still chasing Lou Gehrig. The streak rolls on, no questions asked. The streak rolls on, a runaway train with no conductor, destination unknown.

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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