Tinkering Ripken builds a stance of contribution He works to fight off time, but '99 no sure 162-game bet

Inside the Orioles

August 16, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Another "big round number" greeted Cal Ripken's arrival on a nationally televised stage yesterday against the Cleveland Indians. The man of 1,000 stances played in his 2,600th consecutive game in what likely is his last 162-game season. Lower-back pain that so punished him last summer has eased, leaving Ripken to confront the more mundane challenges of consistency and trying to help preserve a receding season.

Famous for making incessant adjustments, Ripken has especially engrossed himself in the task this season. Eight days shy of his 38th birthday, Ripken has become an understated force in the Orioles' second-half surge.

It is a long way from the awkward and admittedly frustrated hitter who admitted the effects of age little more than two months ago.

Ripken is batting .294 since his average bottomed out at .253 on June 17. He has hit in 18 of his past 20 games, compiling a .347 average with seven extra-base hits and nine RBIs. More significantly, according to those who watch him daily, is Ripken's relative spryness around third base, a position that may be confiscated from him this off-season.

All of it is due to adjustments. While age has robbed him of some attributes -- his 4.6 seconds to first base is off the low end of a scout's watch -- his dogged refusal to concede anything else has allowed him to remain a presence.

Ripken says it is "too exhausting" to chronicle his technical adjustments -- perhaps a poor word choice for one followed by critics calling for his taking a seat. And he chafes at facile descriptives such as "flamingo step" or "pigeon-toed" used to document his ever-changing batting stances. More truthfully, he does not like such self-examination, believing it can only lead to mind clutter.

"I'd rather just blindly stumble along," he says.

Sought for a philosophical rather than a technical explanation, he begs off. "You start one way and you can't help it turning into the other."

Though mere sportswriters may be incapable of understanding Ripken's most profound thoughts on the science, those around him portray Ripken as an aging player preoccupied with retaining his ability to handle a major-league fastball. To compensate, Ripken tumbled into the power-sapping habit of prematurely shifting his weight forward. "Cheating" is what it's called.

With Ripken, the habit showed itself with bushels of groundouts to third base and shortstop. He rarely drove the ball. Manager Ray Miller dropped him to No. 7 in the lineup on May 25. Cal fiddled.

At one point, he adopted an exaggerated step into a pitch. Later, he went to an extremely closed stance in which the toe of his right foot was almost directly behind the heel of his left. He has occasionally adopted the "fiddler" bat position he used during his 1991 MVP season. Other times, he has held it perpendicular. The goal is the same: to keep his weight back as long as possible to maximize power.

"Everybody fights the same thing from time to time. You get out of sync by trying to do too much as opposed to doing less," says Orioles hitting coach Rick Down. "You want it so badly you do more instead of trying to slow it down. That's where he's at now. He's slowed it down."

Still, the realities of an unforgiving 18-year career remain. Ripken is on pace for 12 home runs and 68 RBIs, career lows for a non-strike year. Friday night, the Indians intentionally walked Harold Baines in the first inning to get at Ripken with two outs and first and second base open.

Thinkers in the warehouse already have mulled several contingencies directly affecting Ripken next season. One includes the acquisition of a free agent such as Robin Ventura or Dean Palmer. Such a move would ticket Ripken to first base if Rafael Palmeiro is not re-signed. Others have even advocated making Ripken a sometimes player.

Ripken will regardless continue to tinker.

"A lot of people get on him for being stubborn," says Miller. "But with Cal, he is never going to accept something that isn't working. He will find a way. As much as he might have struggled earlier this year, he's hit well the last 35 games or so. Cal will somehow figure it out."

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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