No natural, but still a hit

Bat: Ripken worked hard to become one of the top-hitting shortstops in history, tinkering with his batting stance throughout his career in his constant struggle to stay productive

The Ripken Legacy : Offense

October 10, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Cal Ripken had more than his share of offensive highlights during his major-league career, enough to establish him as one of the greatest hitters ever to play regularly at shortstop and rank him among baseball's all-time leaders in several statistical categories.

In fact, if you just look at his career numbers, it might be easy to imagine that hitting a baseball came as naturally to Ripken as delivering all those thousands of perfect throws from one side of the infield to the other.

And you would be mistaken.

Ripken may have looked like "The Natural" when he arrived for good in the majors in late 1981 and won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1982. He didn't do anything to dispel that impression when he followed up with the American League Most Valuable Player trophy the next year. But he will be the first to admit that putting up those strong run-production numbers year after year was a constant struggle.

"Sometimes, it hasn't come easy," he said recently. "Some guys just have a swing. Certain people have the natural talent. I didn't feel like I was a person with the most natural talent. I always felt I had to work a little harder."

The hard work paid off with a set of impeccable Hall of Fame credentials - a body of offensive achievement that would have qualified Ripken for Cooperstown even if he had not already assured induction with his record 2,632 consecutive games.

He ranks 13th all time with 3,184 career hits. He has 431 home runs - a record 345 of them as a shortstop - and ranks 18th with 1,695 RBIs. He also owns almost every relevant Orioles career record and a trophy case full of major awards, which isn't bad for a guy who never appeared particularly comfortable with his batting mechanics.

Ripken always seemed to be tinkering with some mechanical aspect of his swing or stance. Even after his best seasons, he would go home and analyze his approach, often coming back the next year with a slightly new look at the plate.

"I look at other players who just naturally have a good swing who can stand in the batter's box and don't have to worry about anything or think about anything," Ripken said. "They go up there and are able to hit the ball and hit the ball to the opposite field with power.

"Maybe my knowledge of the game and my ability to analyze everything was a help to me as a hitter, but it also could have been a little bit of a downfall that I was tinkering all the time. I was trying to figure out how to get to the point where I could keep it the same way all the time. I would try to force things."

Still, who can argue with the results?

He was a big-hitting shortstop who would become the flag bearer for a new generation of king-sized, all-around players at a position previously dominated by defensive specialists. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra are in his debt for creating the new prototype that made possible their ascendance in the mid-1990s.

"He set the standard," Jeter said in an interview previously published in The Sun. "Shortstops were short, defensive. Now, the position is offensive as well as defensive. He set the tone for the rest of us."

No doubt, that will cut two ways as Ripken's career moves into the realm of memory. Rodriguez, still in his mid-20s, needs just a few more big seasons to challenge Ripken's shortstop homer record. Jeter, one of the flashiest all-around players in the game, already has a handful of World Series rings and an excellent chance to reach the Hall of Fame.

If Ripken is their baseball godfather, his offensive legacy could still be affected by the rising tide of baseball statistics. Rodriguez routinely hits 40-plus home runs in baseball's increasingly homer-friendly environment. Jeter already has more 200-hit seasons (three to Ripken's two), and Garciaparra owns a pair of batting titles.

Ripken's benchmark was consistency. He hit 20 or more home runs 12 times. He drove in 90-plus runs eight times. He put it all together in just two seasons - his all-around performances in 1983 and 1991 each led to an American League MVP trophy - but until back trouble seriously limited his playing time in 1999 and 2000, he regularly was among the most productive offensive players at his position.

He also had a habit of rising to the occasion, most recently with his MVP performance in his final All-Star appearance.

Perhaps he wasn't the perfect hitter, but he was the perfect guy to spark the evolution of the modern-day shortstop.

"I always thought I had an ugly swing," he said in a half-serious tone recently. "My skill set was I was a line-drive hitter. I had some gap power where I could hit the ball for some extra-base hits. If I hit the ball a little higher on a line, I could hit a home run."

Somehow, he took that seemingly simple formula and became only the seventh player in major-league history to collect 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, which means that the only people who really thought he had an ugly swing were the opposing pitchers who fell victim to it.

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