For Ripken, best comeback saved for last

July 12, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

PHILADELPHIA -- He's going to the All-Star Game with a .313 batting average, his highest since his MVP season in 1991. He's 50 hits shy of 3,000 and four homers shy of 400, and projects to reach both milestones by the end of the season.

Cal Ripken always will be defined by numbers -- 2,632 foremost, his final hit and home run totals, his record three errors at shortstop in 1990. But his latest resurgence is the topper in a decade of such feats, the greatest example yet of his indomitable will to succeed.

Ripken's will, of course, was evident in his march toward Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record, but The Streak required a different kind of mental strength. Indeed, the most underappreciated part of Ripken's career has been his ability to raise his game when confronted by challenges, time and again.

The pattern began in 1982, when Ripken rebounded from a 7-for-60 start and subsequent beaning by Mike Moore to become the American League Rookie of the Year. His numbers fell off as the team collapsed in the late '80s, but

Eddie Murray was an Oriole then and the subject of more criticism.

Murray was traded after the 1988 season, leaving Ripken as the Orioles' only star. And on June 12, 1990, Ripken passed Everett Scott to move into second place on the all-time consecutive-games list, leaving only Gehrig ahead -- a mere 822 games away.

It was around then that the scrutiny of Ripken increased, the pressure on him mounted and his knack for providing resounding answers to nagging questions began to emerge.

Spanning the decade:

1990-91. Ripken's power numbers were solid in '90; his play at shortstop historic. But he batted a career-low .250 -- his fourth straight season of .264 or under.

So, what happened in '91?

Ripken produced his masterpiece season, winning his second MVP award by batting .323 with 34 homers and 114 RBIs -- all career highs.

1992 to '94. For two years, Ripken's '91 season looked like an aberration. Distracted by contract talks in '92, his average batting fell back to .251, and he failed to hit 20 home runs or drive in 80 runs for the first time.

The first half of '93 was a similar disaster. Ripken entered the All-Star Game at Camden Yards batting just .229, and ESPN referred to him as a "Prisoner of the Streak."

Then came a jailbreak.

Ripken rallied in the second half and rebounded even stronger in the strike-shortened '94 season, producing his last .300 campaign and finishing on a 108-RBI pace.

1996. Less than two months into his first season as manager, Davey Johnson toyed with the idea of moving Ripken to third base. A controversy erupted, then Johnson backed off, satisfied that he had demonstrated control.

But Ripken had yet to make his point.

On May 28, Johnson told him that he would remain at shortstop before a game in Seattle. Ripken responded with a three-homer, eight-RBI night, as if it would protect his turf for good.

1997. Ripken played the final two months with a herniated disk, amid calls to end The Streak. He staggered to the end of the season, but was one of the Orioles' top playoff performers, batting .385 against Seattle and Cleveland.

Remember Game 2 of the AL Championship Series? Ripken could have been one of the Orioles' heroes after hitting a game-tying, two-run homer. But Marquis Grissom's three-run homer off Armando Benitez proved a turning point in the game, the series and Orioles history.

1999. This season figured to be challenging enough, with Ripken adjusting to days off for the first time. Then he lost his father. Then he made his first trip to the disabled list.

Suddenly, his career seemed in jeopardy, and the 400-homer and 3,000-hit plateaus seemed out of reach. It did not appear out of the question that Ripken would spend the All-Star break announcing his retirement.

Instead, he will make his 16th straight All-Star start, and he's entirely deserving, even if Tony Fernandez -- the league's leading hitter at .372 -- is enjoying a better year.

Ripken has batted .333 since coming off the DL, with 12 homers and 36 RBIs in 50 games. No longer does he look uncomfortable at the plate. No longer is it uncomfortable to watch him.

A player will experience good days and bad over the course of an 18-year career, good seasons and bad, too. Not even a player as consistent as Ripken is immune to the game's ebbs and flows or to the aging process that forced his move to third in '97.

Ripken has won only one World Series. His cool, analytical approach wasn't always the best fit for a club in need of more vocal leadership. He's hitting well now, but his range at third remains below average.

No one is perfect, but Ripken remains an absolute marvel, and not just because of The Streak. Even at the age of 38, even after losing his father, even after injuring his back, he revived his Hall of Fame career.

Don't call it a comeback.

Call it the Ripken Way.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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