The last big number falls

April 17, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

More than his 3,000th career hit fell for Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. (day of week) in (place). Loathe as the home-grown Iron Man is to admit it, a 20-year career defined largely by its "big round numbers" just received the last line on its Hall of Fame plaque.

Ripken has rewritten the definition of a position, obliterated the previous standard for lunchpail mentality and now placed himself in the company of men named Cobb and Wagner, Kaline and Collins, Mays and Musial, Aaron and Rose.

For years there has always been the next challenge, the next number. Now Ripken's steely blues squint into the future without something huge looming.

400 home runs?

Accomplished with the panache of a suddenly mortal talent stepping directly from the disabled list into the batter's box then yanking a Rolando Arrojo cutter inside the left-field foul pole at Camden Yards. 1,500 RBIs? That happened within the forgettable backdrop of 1998, when Ripken played the last several months knowing his Streak would perish in September.

1,500 RBIs?

That happened within the forgettable backdrop of 1998, when Ripken played the last several months knowing his Streak would perish in September. He climbed into the box for his 10,000th at-bat the same season, set a few club records, then went home to ponder how much he had left.

"Numbers generally show who you are," says Ripken. "They don't tell everything but it's the way we measure. We all like it. I like being able to see where you stack up."

No player of his generation has been more defined by numbers than the kid from Aberdeen. Something as basic as his uniform digit causes such a tug-of-war within youth teams that numerous leagues either have banned it or assigned it to every player. Ripken's career has been defined by one pursuit after another, one big number after the next. When he finally passed Lou Gehrig on a feel-good September night nearly five years ago, Ripken began fielding questions about how long he would continue. And when he finally sat down on Sept. 20, 1998, the question changed again. Would the end of The Streak mean the end of Ripken?

Of course, it didn't. When The Streak stopped, questions about his "next big number" gained momentum. He began 1999 needing 16 home runs for 400 and only 112 hits for 3,000. Common wisdom held that the hit milestone would be more attainable than the power figure, especially because Ripken hit only 14 home runs in more than 600 at-bats the year before. His slugging percentage was beginning to redefine him as a singles-hitting third baseman. Sometimes the questions got downright rude. Ripken sat on a knothole bench 14 months ago saying he was uncertain if he would play in 2000, that his body and his performance would give him the answer.

Instead, they arrived at a split verdict.

Ripken hit .340, a career-high number he's proud "to have on my baseball card."

But he played only 86 games and received just 332 at-bats. Given 307 fewer plate appearances than the year before, Ripken hit four more home runs with only four fewer RBIs. He remembered the sensation as "magical," an impression only enhanced by his two trips to the disabled list and season-ending back surgery in September. There was the night he had six hits and six RBIs in Atlanta, the consecutive three-RBI games in September, the 12-game hitting streak covering April, May and his first back-related absence.

"After all he had gone through, I didn't now if he'd come back. I thought that might be it," said Orioles broadcaster Mike Flanagan. "I was wrong."

Flanagan saw Ripken build numbers during eight seasons as a teammate, two as a pitching coach and three from the Home Team Sports booth. He is a baseball man; hence, he has a reverance for numbers and their ability to define a player over years.

Asked for a number, Flanagan reflects then cuts to Ripken's essence: 162.

"The goal was always to play every game of every season. That's how the record happened," recalls Flanagan, Ripken's teammate for eight seasons. "I guess the only other number that really mattered was 7: 35 -- game time."

Boil Ripken's numerous accomplishments to their core, and an unshakeable consistency is exposed. Ripken's 3,000 hits came with benefit of only two 200-hit seasons and just four of more than 180. However, until his injury-abbreviated 1999 season, Ripken had never failed to stack 150 hits in a season unaffected by labor strife. "You can get 3,000 hits by having 15 seasons of 200 hits, which is almost impossible," says Ripken, "or you can have 20 years of 150 hits. Either way, it's something that doesn't come quickly. That's why it says something beyond numbers, I think."

It says a player has maintained his conditioning and his talent for almost a generation. It says he has made countless adjustments to perform the single-most difficult action in sport, hitting a speeding round ball with a tapered cylinder.

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