For 400th time, let his circle be unbroken

July 29, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Let it happen today. Let it happen at home. Let Cal Ripken hit his 400th homer in the same place he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

Let it happen here.

The home run would mark the fourth major historic event in the eight-year history of Camden Yards, after Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game, Eddie Murray's 500th homer and Ripken ending his streak.

It was impossible to imagine Ripken breaking Gehrig's record on the road. It was fitting that Murray hit his 500th homer in the city where he began his career. And it would be only proper if Ripken made history today.

The Orioles fly west for six games after this afternoon's series finale against Texas. Ripken could hit No. 400 in Seattle or Oakland before the club returns home for a four-game series against Detroit.

Jeff Fassero, the major-league leader with 30 homers allowed, pitches for the Mariners Sunday. And with the closing of the Kingdome, Oakland- Alameda County Stadium is now tied for third among Ripken's favorite road home run parks.

Still, who wants to see Ripken give Seattle's Safeco Field an instant piece of history? And who wants to see him possibly strike after midnight EDT in Oakland, where the average attendance is 17,325?

Let Ripken do it in daylight, without the distraction of flash cameras, and in plenty of time for the 6 o'clock highlights.

Let him do it today.

Too often in his career, Ripken's individual pursuits have been the best reasons to watch the Orioles. It happened in 1995, when his pursuit of Gehrig was the highlight of a sub-.500 season. And it's happening again in '99.

Ripken's 400th homer will rank second on his list of career accomplishments, behind you-know-what and ahead of 3,000 hits, the other milestone he figures to reach this season.

The 3,000-hit club contains 21 members to the 400-homer club's 28, but what makes this achievement special is that Ripken will be the first player to reach 400 after spending the majority of his career as a middle infielder.

The list is composed almost entirely of outfielders and corner infielders. Ernie Banks hit 512 homers after beginning his career as a shortstop, but finished with more games played at first base.

Ripken holds the major-league record with 345 home runs by a shortstop. He started a record 2,216 consecutive games at the position before moving to third base in 1997.

Thus, 400 represents one of Ripken's most important legacies.

He proved that a big man could play shortstop, introduced power at a traditionally light-hitting spot and inspired a generation of players like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter to come.

Ripken is 37 hits short of 3,000, but Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Rod Carew and Robin Yount reached that total after spending the majority of their careers as middle infielders. The power is what makes Ripken unique.

He will become only the seventh member of the 400-homer, 3,000-hit club, along with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Murray, Stan Musial, Dave Winfield and Carl Yastrzemski. Some might dismiss his achievements as the product of longevity, but that analysis misses the point.

It's true that Ripken likely will have the lowest career batting average (.277) and home run frequency (one every 26.79 at-bats) in the 3,000-hit and 400-homer clubs. Dave Winfield will have the next-lowest batting average (.283), Yastrzemski the next-lowest home-run frequency (one every 26.52 ABs).

Yet, here Ripken is.

He has demonstrated Murray-like consistency, producing only one season of 30 or more homers (1991) and two seasons of 200 or more hits (1983 and '91).

And his managers always found him worthy of a spot in their lineup, enabling him to compile statistics that would qualify him for the Hall of Fame even if he never became the game's all-time Iron Man.

Ripken isn't as natural a hitter as Tony Gwynn or Wade Boggs, two other veterans closing in on 3,000 hits. And he doesn't crush the ball like Mark McGwire or Albert Belle, relying more on timing for his power.

Yet, here he is.

He couldn't have reached this point without special gifts, but as has so often been the case in his career, Ripken willed himself toward excellence -- especially this season, when it appeared a back injury might force him to retire.

His 400th homer deserves to be part of Baltimore baseball history, joining not only his 2,131, 2,632 and Murray's 500th homer, but all of the Memorial Stadium memories:

Brooks Robinson's final game, Frank Robinson's home run out of the park, Rocky Colavito's four-homer game, Al Kaline's 3,000th hit and the no-hitters by Hoyt Wilhelm, Steve Barber/Stu Miller, Jim Palmer and Tom Phoebus.

Let it happen today.

Let it happen here.

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