Through years, Ripken a well-adjusted hitter

April 17, 2000|By John Eisenberg

When assessing Cal Ripken as a hitter, you start at the position he played for most of his career. Shortstop. Heart of the defense. A position traditionally reserved for players whose gloves are better than their bats.

Ripken was no different, even though he has done as much as any shortstop to redefine the position, becoming only the seventh player in major-league history to collect 400 homers and 3,000 hits.

He has always been a glove man above all else, a wise, sure-handed, dependable shortstop first, and a productive hitter second.

"When I first came up in the early '90s, my goal was to get 27 straight ground balls hit to him," Orioles starter Mike Mussina said.

He was a natural in the field, as are all the best shortstops.

But at the plate?

It's probably a stretch to call Ripken a natural there, too, as much as he has accomplished. His many ups and downs over the years, his array of stances, his endless search for the perfect swing - all are marks of a hitter who has had to work at it, a hitter who couldn't just close his eyes and deliver.

Don't misunderstand. You don't get to 3,000 hits without rare abilities and qualities, as Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley recently explained.

"All good hitters have to be strong, strong in the hands, strong mentally, and have good hand-eye coordination," Crowley said. "Cal has all those things."

He also has his share of enviable natural qualities. When the Orioles played Atlanta in an ESPN Sunday night game last year, the network used a computer to time players' bat speed - how quickly they moved the bat through the strike zone - and the fastest were Ripken, then 38, and 22-year-old Braves center fielder Andruw Jones.

"I thought that was pretty impressive," Crowley said. "An old guy and a young guy."

Of course, Ripken also batted a career-high .340 last season, breaking out from four seasons closer to his .278 career average. Something went very right. Instead of his usual, yearlong tinkering with stances, he found a stance that worked and stuck with it.

"He made a neat adjustment," said former major-leaguer Fred Lynn, who played with Ripken on the Orioles in the late 1980s and more recently served as an ESPN analyst. "He dropped his hands, got off the plate and started using the whole field. He's so strong that sometimes his right hand can dominate and he almost buggy-whips the ball. But he was terrific last year."

That he's still tinkering and adjusting near the end of his career speaks volumes about the effort that was involved in racking up his historic hitting numbers.

Playing shortstop was always easier, it seemed; he has won two Gold Gloves, deserved several more and set a spate of major-league fielding records over the years. In 1990, he committed only three errors in 161 games, an astonishing performance.

"He was simply the heart and soul of the defense for years," said former Oriole Jeff Ballard, who pitched in front of Ripken from 1987 to 1991.

He also obviously has produced at the plate, but never quite as easily. He has hit above .300 in only five of his 18 seasons, and although he led the American League in hits in 1983, he has never won a batting, home run or RBI title.

It seemed he was on his way to a career of such honors when he was named AL Most Valuable Player in 1983 and batted .304 the next year. Crowley, an Orioles teammate in Ripken's rookie year in 1982, was impressed.

"I saw some really, really good things from him early in his career," Crowley said. "I knew then that he was a special player. Not that anyone can look at a player that young and project the kind of career he's had."

But Ripken's hitting tailed off to a degree after that, to the point that .275 with 20-25 homers and 80-90 RBIs became a typical season. Not bad at all, particularly for a shortstop. But not dominating.

Then he was into the stretch run of his consecutive-games streak, never missing a game, always putting up respectable numbers year after year.

In the end, all those years of hard work and respectable hitting added up to history.

"The streak is what has enabled him to get to 3,000 and 400," Mussina said. "If he'd taken days off like everyone else over the years and played 145 games a season instead of 162, he never would have gotten enough at-bats to reach 3,000. But he kept playing, and kept hitting, and he made it."

His lifetime hitting numbers will be the second-strongest defining characteristic of his career, after the 2,632 straight games he played in. Three thousand hits. Four hundred homers. Get there, and it defines you.

His fielding, tougher to quantify, will become something "you had to see."

But make no mistake, fielding was the part of the game that came easier to him, the part that provided the foundation of his remarkable career.

He was, after all, a shortstop.

But he was a shortstop who worked at his hitting, refused to let it beat him, and in the end, as always, won.

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