For Ripken, end of road appears closer than ever

April 16, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- No one wants to see this. No one wants to see Cal Ripken embarrassed. No one wants to see a great player stumble at the end of his career.

It was only yesterday that Ripken was an offensive force, driving balls to the gaps, hitting three-run homers, delivering clutch RBIs.

It was only yesterday that he was one of the game's top defensive players, catching every grounder, chasing down pop-ups, making powerful throws.

That Cal Ripken has disappeared, at least for now.

It's sad to watch.

And it's sadder knowing that Ripken's slump appears at least partly attributable to his grief over the death of his father, Cal Ripken Sr.

Ripken says he is healthy. But without elaborating, he admitted last night, "It's a challenge mentally."

"I see someone dealing with a lot of things he never had to deal with," said Ripken's friend and teammate, Mike Mussina. "I know he's going through emotions he never had to deal with before.

"This game is tough enough when everything in life is going smoothly. When you have other things creep in, like his father passing away and his [back] injury it's got to be tough on him. If I was in the same situation, I know it would be tough on me."

Ripken went 1-for-5 and made two errors on one play in the Orioles' 9-7 victory over the New York Yankees last night. He is 4-for-23 on the season.

He is swinging defensively, struggling to put the ball in play. And at third base, he is bobbling routine grounders, making wild throws.

Mussina once said he would always want the ball hit to Ripken at shortstop with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning.

Well, Mussina led 4-0 last night with two outs and the bases loaded in the second when No. 9 hitter Luis Sojo hit a chopper to Ripken at third.

The ball bounced off Ripken's glove for one error. Ripken threw wide of Orioles first baseman Will Clark for another.

Chuck Knoblauch hit the next pitch off Mussina to deep left for a double off B. J. Surhoff's glove, and just like that, the Yankees had tied the score.

Nine years ago, Ripken set a major-league record for a shortstop by committing three errors in 161 games.

He has made five errors in his past four games -- just three fewer than last season, when he led AL third baseman with a .979 fielding percentage.

"I'd be happier if I didn't have so many errors," Ripken said. "I honestly don't feel that bad. But I haven't made the plays."

Anyone who has ever lost a parent can relate to the turbulent emotions Ripken is experiencing. He said on Tuesday that he was dealing with "one of the most challenging moments of my life."

"In some sense, I know that I missed some time. I know in some respects, I feel a little rusty," Ripken said, referring to the eight days he missed late in spring training because of his father's illness and passing.

"I have to have some patience. I'm trying to make up ground, take extra batting practice, extra ground balls. Maybe I'm pushing a little too much. I don't know."

It's difficult to pass judgment on a player at such a personal and professional crossroads. And no one should rule out a resurgence by one of the proudest competitors the game has ever known.

Still, Ripken has been many things during his 18-year career -- a two-time MVP, a two-time Gold Glove winner, a 16-time All-Star.

Never has he been an object of sympathy.

You don't want to see him go out like his idol, Brooks Robinson, who batted .201 in his last year as a regular, then hung on two more seasons. You want to see him go out with his dignity intact.

Ripken needs 118 hits for 3,000 and 16 homers for 400, two milestones he figured to reach this season.

Now, you wonder if he'll even get close.

What should the Orioles do? That question is best posed to Miller, but the manager had little to say last night, and might not hold the job much longer.

"He made an error and got a hit," Miller said.

Two errors, actually.

"Everyone is trying hard," Miller said. "Cal's doing all right."

Ripken almost certainly wants to keep playing. It is the way he has always broken out of slumps. It is, as he says in his autobiography, the only way he knows.

Still, the Orioles play three games on artificial turf at SkyDome. Ripken need not start all of them, not with Willis Otanez on the roster. Crazy as this might sound, Otanez might be a better option right now.

The Orioles shouldn't bench Ripken for a long stretch -- he deserves every chance to snap out of it. But as much as he is struggling, one or two days off a week certainly would seem appropriate.

The issue is so delicate. Ripken is one of the Orioles' all-time greats. He barely had time to grieve over the death of his father. And then he got hurt.

It's almost eerie, the way this all happened.

The Streak ended, and Ripken's world started to crumble.

His father's illness and death obviously were unrelated. But some former club officials believed that once The Streak ended, it would be like taking the mask off Batman, and Ripken would decline rapidly.

Who can figure out the exact cause of Ripken's slide? He is confronting so much at once. The end of The Streak. His first serious injury. The loss of his father.

His tentativeness on the field is understandable, but that doesn't make it any easier is watch.

No one wants to see a great player stumble.

No one wants to see Cal Ripken embarrassed.

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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