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As Young Ripken Continues to Rise, His Dad's Orioles Struggle

May 10, 1987|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

BALTIMORE — We pretend baseball is primarily a game of teams, when it's more about people. Ted Williams only played in one World Series; Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron and Rogers Hornsby in two each. Who cares or remembers?The team may be the individual's context, but its success is not his definition.

Cal Ripken Jr., who may one day be in Cooperstown, is learning this lesson at last. Team play is inspiring and important;but, in a sense, it's also kid's stuff. Anybody can summon the motivation to compete for a pennant. "Playing for yourself" sounds like a low goal, but it can also be a high one if, by that, you mean playing up to a private standard, even if the game or the season has lost its meaning.

The Baltimore Orioles have been in a slump lately. It's lasted 500 games.

The idea is growing on Ripken that the exemplary Orioles he worshiped as a child, then led to a world title in his second season, are now, more or less, an historical artifact. He won't say the Orioles, managed by his father, are a bad team;he doesn't believe it and wouldn't confess it if he did. But he'll admit he recognizes a new problem.

"I've had a tough time dealing with the way each season has ended the last three years," said Ripken, finding a gentle way to say that the club has quit each autumn and that he has sagged with it. "The motivation, when you're not playing for a true winning reason, just wasn't there. You need an approach that works no matter what."

As Milwaukee coach Andy Etchebarren told one Oriole recently, "You just don't have any pitching. Our guys can't wait to hit your guys." Just as scary, the Orioles' one trusty reliever, Don Aase, is disabled with a lingering sore shoulder.

Just as sad as the Orioles' decline last season was the slippage in Eddie Murray and Ripken--two players, who like Aaron and Eddie Mathews, should exist outside the confines of the league standings. Their RBI totals (84 and 81) seemed at least a month shy of a load.

Murray is hitting below .200, fielding and running the bases disorientedly these days. The organization's mess still gets to his head. Ripken, however, may have moved above the problem. Perhaps the elevation of his father to manager has been the key. Whereas the gap between sixth place and fourth might mean little to some players, it could end up determining whether the elder Ripken keeps the job he's always wanted. "Don't think playing for me has anything to do with it," says the old man.

"Hard to tell," says the son.

Still, it is fascinating that Ripken is off to the best start of his life; his 30 RBIs in 27 games lead the majors. With men in scoring position, he's 14 for 27. He's among the leaders in eight batting categories, including nine homers and a .343 average. Just as the team has done its worst, Ripken has played best.

"He hasn't hit a ball bad in 15 minutes," says coach Terry Crowley during batting practice, as Ripken yanks one liner after another into the bleachers ("clank")or off the wall ("thud"). "He's talented. But he's even more dedicated."

Ripken's play almost seems to be a daily illustration that the team's problems are not the fault of his father's instruction. See, he taught me and I'm eating the league alive.

In Memorial Stadium, too much seems deja vu. Scott McGregor gives up homers and can't figure out why. Bad luck and line drives keep Mike Flanagan winless. Alan Wiggins gets picked off almost daily. Floyd Rayford's appetite for curves in the dirt is undiminished. John Shelby's tight as a drum. Ken Dixon thinks nothing's his fault. Larry Sheets can't get playing time. Et cetera. With so much the same, who's experimenting?Which Oriole looks most different? Yes, Ripken.

Everybody knows he'll go a long way for a batting tip. But to Japan Ripken went on a postseason tour in hopes of doping out why he wasn't driving the ball. One day, Koji Yamamoto, the old third baseman of the Hiroshima Carp, said, "How come you changed your batting stance?" When last seen in Japan in '83, Ripken was reigning MVP, fresh from 211 hits. So, his ears pricked up.

Over the years, Ripken had laid his bat back more each season until he was almost pointing the barrel toward the screen before each pitch. "I had a habit of wrapping the bat behind my head too much," said Ripken. "That move reminded me not to do it. But it got more and more exaggerated." Ripken's right elbow was dipped so low it prevented his hands from making a powerful snap-over. As soon as Ripken held the bat straight up again, "my hands started flying through the zone. I hit two homers the day Yamamoto told me."

Naturally, Ripken used the method in March in Florida. "And hit nothing," he laughs, remembering the .157 average for 21 games. A week before opening day, he was worried. "When you start out hot, it lets you relax and stay within yourself, sometimes all season. When you start badly, like I did last year, you try to make everything up too fast."

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