It seems as though Cal Ripken can't swing the bat without his name moving up a list of baseball's all-time greats. Just stepping on the field deepens the impression he has made on the game.
But almost ignored is a chase that has taken place much closer to home. It nearly blew right past him.
Ripken's seventh-inning home run last night off Tampa Bay left-hander Tony Saunders tied the Orioles' record of 2,848 hits held by Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson. Having walked and grounded out in his first two at-bats, Ripken broke up Saunders' shutout by launching a 2-0 pitch into the Orioles' bullpen.
It took Robinson 23 seasons to accumulate 2,848 hits. The Iron Man has done it in 18, including an August call-up in 1981 after the players' strike was settled. His last hit came with the same dramatic flair he showed when homering on the nights he tied and surpassed Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record in 1995.
Ripken found out how close he had gotten to the record when he arrived at Camden Yards yesterday for his 2,605th consecutive game and was approached by an usher wishing him luck.
"He said, 'I hope you get it tonight.' And I went, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' He said, 'I hope you pass Brooksie.' Then I started thinking about it," Ripken said.
"I try to put everything else out of my mind and stay focused on the day-to-day things. In a lot of ways, that's how I've been able to have my success over the years, by not letting the outside things get in. Not that this is a major distraction. It's a very positive thing. But I'm not aware of the numbers, I'm not aware of how many games I've played. You just want to go out and do the best job you can and keep it very simple."
Whatever satisfaction Ripken derives from achieving the record comes mostly from surpassing a player he idolized as a kid while accompanying his father to Memorial Stadium.
"You think about all the hits you watched Brooks get and the type of career he had, you don't really think it's realistic to get that many hits. It's another one of those great things that happens in your career that you don't fully understand or appreciate as long as you're playing," he said.
"As far as Brooks goes, I grew up watching him. He was my role model in a lot of ways. I liked the way he handled things off the field and the way he played the game on the field. I got a chance to meet him and he gave me a few tips. It's almost an honor to get to the point he got. That makes you especially proud."
Though the milestone seemed to have crept up on Ripken, he actually made a mad dash for it. He began last night with an eight-game hitting streak, batting .412 (14-for-34) during that stretch. His average stood at .280, its highest point since May 1. It's a subject he avoids like the disabled list.
"I'm the kind of person who wants to go with the flow and not try to analyze it. I get in trouble when I analyze and evaluate too much. I'm just happy I'm able to contribute and I'm happy the club's winning," he said.
Ripken slipped into a groove while tinkering with his stance, a common practice for the 16-time All-Star. "It feels like I found something in my swing and I'm able to drive the ball. I'd like to continue to build on that without analyzing it," he said.
"The bottom line is where he's at when he finishes his stride," said hitting coach Rick Down. "If his hands are back and his weight's back, he's going to hit. If his hands are back and his weight's forward, he's not going to hit. Whatever changes he makes is to get better control of his body."
Twice this week, manager Ray Miller has noted a change in Ripken over the season's second half, both at the plate and in the field. There has been a rejuvenation that Miller ties to the club's overall improvement.
"His bat speed's outstanding right now and he's been playing unbelievable defense the last month or so," Miller said. "Whether emotionally, the fact we're doing better, maybe that brings something out of everybody."
"I think life and energy is put into all of us when your winning and on a good roll like we are," said Ripken, who moved into 36th place on baseball's all-time home run list with 380.
Cal Ripken tied Brooks Robinson last night as the Orioles' all-time leader in hits. The club's top five:
Player ............... Hits
Cal Ripken ........... 2,848
Brooks Robinson ...... 2,848
Eddie Murray ......... 2,080
Boog Powell .......... 1,574
Ken Singleton ........ 1,455
Pub Date: 8/21/98