Ripken dives back into game

Defensive gems proof of healthy step forward

May 20, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was a Brooks Robinson kind of night. Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken dived to his right to make a great play in the second inning. He lunged to his left to make a similar play in the ninth, and still wasn't done with an impressive defensive performance that proved he is back in both mind and body.

He went full extension again to his left later in the ninth to snag another sharp ground ball, this time losing his footing and spinning in midair in an unsuccessful attempt to throw out Anaheim Angels third baseman Troy Glaus at first base.

Never mind that the Orioles went on to suffer another discouraging late-inning loss. That play -- and its immediate aftermath -- proved once and for all that Ripken has regained his mobility and his full enjoyment of the game.

Even as he twisted toward the ground and the ball pulled first baseman Jeff Conine off the bag, Ripken clearly had big smile on his face.

"I was probably thinking about how silly I must look," Ripken said.

There is no way that many in the crowd of 38,557 could have seen that smile -- it was only obvious on the television replay -- but the fans clearly sensed that something special had just happened. They rose in unison to give Ripken a standing ovation for a play he didn't make.

"It just feels good to play well," he said. "I can't say enough about the fans. They have been totally supportive of me. It just seems to be one nice moment after another. I took it as they were happy to have me back and I was happy to get back."

Ripken had a big night all around. He hit his second home run of the season in the second inning and has hit safely in each of the six games he has played since returning from the disabled list and the back injury that seemed so recently to threaten his career.

He has worked diligently to overcome the severe back pain that knocked him out of the lineup on Opening Day and eventually forced him onto the disabled list for the first time in his major-league career. But Ripken is the first to say that that there is more to his dramatic resurgence than just a good physical therapy program.

The time off allowed him to go through a more normal grieving process following the death of his father -- Cal Ripken Sr. -- in late March.

"There was a silver lining to the injury," Ripken said. "It gave me time to heal mentally and physically. I jumped right back into baseball because I thought it was the best thing to do after my dad's funeral. Maybe it was a little too soon. Maybe I should have taken a little time."

Ripken came back with an unburdened mind and a new batting stance. The result has been a decided improvement at the plate. He has eight hits in 26 at-bats and has averaged an RBI a game with a stance that looks a lot like the one he employed on the way to some of his best offensive seasons -- particularly his MVP year in 1991.

"That is the more conventional way I hit," he said of the stance. "You can't really duplicate something from another year. In '91, I was able to ride that out and feel confident with it all year.

"You can look at the videotape and say, `Why not just do it the way you did in '91?' But you can come back with the same thing and it doesn't feel the same. I operate on feel."

Everything feels better now, because Ripken has been able to come to terms with all of the obstacles that have been laid in front of him this year.

"It's really a matter of being able to concentrate and see the ball clearly," he said. Hitting "requires a good clear head and good focus. The things that bother you affect your focus. I'm playing with a clear head right now, and it feels good."

That much is obvious to everyone around him.

"No. 1, he's healthy and No. 2, his head's clear," said manager Ray Miller. "You never get over a loss like that, but I think he has had a chance to grieve and get healthy and sort some things out. I've never seen him work so hard. I think he truly realized how much he missed [the game], and I think that rejuvenated him."

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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