For Ripken, time is running out

April 26, 2001|By John Eisenberg

THIS IS the point where Cal Ripken has always responded. Throughout his career, whenever he has felt slighted or unjustly criticized, he has answered with a volley of big hits and big plays to silence his skeptics. The same blend of pride, competitiveness and stubbornness that enabled him to play in 2,632 straight games also has enabled him to bat, oh, around .978 at laughing last.

Fans, announcers, talk-show callers, newspaper columnists, Orioles managers, warehouse executives - we've almost all taken turns having Ripken zip our mouths and prove he could and would continue to play well and as often as possible, and, thus, orchestrate his career.

To that end, manager Mike Hargrove's announcement that Ripken is going to play less, perhaps a lot less, would seem to be just the latest setup line certain to motivate the future Hall of Famer. If the past is any kind of prologue, Ripken, 40, is going to start hitting and push his .161 average back to a more normal altitude. His three-run homer last night in Detroit was a sign - and a start.

But things are different this time, different in a fundamental way: Even if Ripken does respond in his usual fashion to the slight, he isn't going to hit his way back into the everyday lineup. He just can't do it this time.

The Orioles have made a decision, a belated but wise decision, to go young - or at least as young as possible with so many veterans under contract. Their No. 1 goal for 2001 is to find out which, if any, of their fledgling major-leaguers can play. That means less playing time for Ripken, regardless of his batting average, and a lot less playing time if he continues to display the diminished skills of the past three weeks.

No one wants to see it, least of all Ripken himself. But the Orioles aren't being wrong, unfair or rash. They're making a tough but appropriate call with their cornerstone player of the past two decades.

Ripken was gambling to begin with when he chose to come back this season, gambling that he could hold a starting job at 40 because he'd hit .300 over the past two seasons (when healthy). The gamble was that he'd find himself on the bench, where he hadn't sat in 19 years, if he couldn't hold the job. And while last night's homer is evidence that it's still too soon in the season to write such judgments in ink, the combination of Ripken's poor start and the early-season contributions of Chris Richard, Jay Gibbons and Mike Kinkade have tilted the odds severely against him.

Encouraged by what he is seeing, Hargrove is proving even more serious than expected about finding out whether his younger players belong. Thumbs up to that. And even though Ripken can point to a cracked rib as a possible explanation for his slow start, he is just in the way in such a climate.

It's the toughest of situations, but Hargrove and the Orioles are handling it well so far. They didn't really want Ripken back once they broke up their veteran club last summer, yet they signed him to a respectful contract (one year, $6.3 million) because of all he has done for the franchise, and because they didn't have a proven alternative at third base. And now, even though it's obvious Kinkade, hitting .385, deserves a chance, Hargrove has avoided offering even a hint of criticism.

Not that he needs to say a thing with Ripken's play speaking louder than any comment could.

Ripken can't complain, of course, having said for all these years that he was able to play every day only because his managers put him in the lineup, implying that he held no sway. It wouldn't be tasteful to raise a ruckus only after that allegedly democratic decision-making process finally turned against him.

But he's right: It's the manager's call. And Hargrove is, indeed, making a call, as kindly, subtly and respectfully as he can under the circumstances.

At this point, Ripken isn't hitting for average, and his range in the field is glaringly diminished. If it wasn't already clear that this is his last season with the Orioles, it's clear now. All gray area evaporated with Hargrove's announcement. The club is moving on, as it must after three losing seasons and with attendance in decline. And moving on means crossing a long-dreaded boundary and sending out the regrettable message that Ripken just isn't an everyday player anymore - at least not with a .161 average on a team trying to reinvent itself.

You know Ripken hates it, but he is nothing if not wise in all things baseball, and he knows a 40-year-old hitting well under his weight can't squawk. "I guess it would be a surprise if I had 20 hits in my first 40 at-bats," he said of Hargrove's move.

But he doesn't have 20 hits in 40 at-bats. He had eight hits in 52 at-bats going into last night's game. Two extra-base hits in 54 plate appearances. Numbers that made Hargrove's decision a no-brainer, really.

Ripken is already responding as he always does, by bouncing back and proving the skeptics wrong. It would be a great way to go out.

But whatever he does this time is, in a way, almost irrelevant. Hargrove has spoken, softly but forcefully. Ripken's time as a daily presence in the lineup is over. And at this point, with this team, why reverse such a decision?

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