BALTIMORE -- Earlier this month, Cal Ripken Jr. reached rock bottom. That's what it usually takes to convince a successful man to make drastic changes.

At the moment he was passing Everett Scott's mark of 1,307 consecutive games, second all-time, Ripken also was hearing boos at Memorial Stadium.

As he was building a streak of errorless games at shortstop -- which has reached 70, three short of the AL record -- Ripken was being savaged on talk shows for being selfish.

You see, Ripken's batting average had plunged to .209. And in baseball your average and the public's estimation of your character usually go hand in hand. Ripken's failure to hit his weight became symbolic of a 4 1/2-season span. Since 1985, the six-time all-star starter had proved, beyond any statistical doubt, that he no longer bore much resemblance to the hitter who'd masticated AL pitching in his first four seasons.

In those early years, Ripken averaged .293 with 27 homers, 68 extra-base hits, 108 runs scored and 98 RBI a year. In the four seasons since, he has averaged .264 with 24 homers, 55 extra-base hits, 91 runs scored and 88 RBI.

Holy atrophy.

Everybody had a solution. Take a rest to avoid those slumps from exhaustion the past two Septembers. Break the streak, forget about Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130 games and take the "pressure" off. Move to third base -- a physically easier and less mentally demanding position. Bat lower in the order where there's less responsibility.

Only one suggestion seemed verboten.

Maybe Cal should start taking batting instruction from somebody besides the third-base coach, his dad.

Over the past two weeks, strange doings have been afoot. The Ripken rumor mill has been buzzing because, suddenly, Ripken's appearance at home plate has become radically different. He stopped wrapping the bat around his neck like a contortionist. He stopped waggling the bat as the pitcher delivered. Ripken even stopped standing so deep in the box, with an extremely closed stance.

Finally, Ripken began looking a bit like a modern hitter -- one influenced by the Charlie Lau, Walt Hriniak schools of hitting. Weight back. Commit late. Hit to all fields. Don't uppercut. Line drives, not fly balls. Hit off a firm left side that extends, rather than collapses, at the moment of impact.

A funny thing happened: Ripken got hot immediately. One line drive or smoking grounder after another. Plus a couple of seeing-eye bonuses. In his last 14 games, Ripken has been one of the hotter batters in baseball -- 23 for 56 (.411). His average has risen from .209 to .250. Last week, Ripken had a new kind of streak -- four straight three-hit games, a first for him.

Ripken merely may be in a nice streak that's gotten him back to his modest level of the past four years. But Ripken doesn't think so. He thinks Frank Robinson (1966 Triple Crown winner, 586 career home runs) has turned him around.

Yes, Frank.

The secret's out.

"It's ludicrous for people to say that I've never had any other teacher but my father," said Ripken yesterday, knowing that, basically, that is what most people in baseball believe. "We're all in this together. I'm just taking advantage of expertise. What I'm doing is something we all agreed with. Maybe Frank said it differently than my father would have, so I heard it."

Gee, does that ever happen with fathers and sons?

"Anyway, it dawned on me."

Ripken asked Robinson, "Am I lunging at the ball?"

"No," said Robinson, chuckling, "you're sprinting at it. Looks like you're trying to run to the mound to get the ball out of the pitcher's hand."

"From trying to succeed too much, I got into the habit of of starting too soon. And that's a hard habit to break," Ripken said Thursday. "Everything I'm doing is to try to wait longer. Not be jumpy.

"When you lunge, you pop up and nothing good can happen. When you wait, you can hit the ball hard to right. You're still in hitting position. . . . I was getting myself in a position where I'd expended my energy and I had nothing left to hit the ball with.

"I can't be my own eyes. You need somebody to watch you."

And perhaps not with family eyes. Where a father might see minor problems, an outsider might see the need for a major overhaul.

"He's giving himself a chance to be the hitter he can be," said Robinson.

If Ripken ever straightens out his mechanics -- and he's been an eccentric-looking hitter for years -- then other controversies around him would subside.

Already, Ripken Sr. is happy to take shots at his son's critics. "If he was so tired at 1,307, how'd he get so rested at 1,314?" growled the old coach.

Ripken Jr. lives in a world of stats and all of them seem to have some attendant controversy. On Tuesday, he got an error when an errant relay throw glanced off his glove as he leaped to catch it. A run scored. On Wednesday the official scorer changed his ruling and Ripken's errorless streak was reborn. The decision was close. But the day-late reversal smelled like favoritism, a charge Ripkens often hear.

Perhaps it would be more germane to note that Ripken has made two errors in his last 127 games. Nobody's ever played shortstop more flawlessly. Instead of outgrowing the position with age, Ripken seems to be growing into it.

Or is it just his glove?

Ripken says, "If you must know, it's the glove."

Late last July in Minnesota, Kirby Puckett hit two topspin smashes that jumped out of Ripken's glove for errors. "So, I switched to my BP {batting practice} glove. It's bigger, looser. More like a third baseman's glove or an outfielder's," he said. "I've never had a glove that broke in just like that one. It's the same series as the others, but it's just different. In-between hops don't bounce out of it. Balls to the backhand side, where I used to get a lot of errors, don't spin out. But it's still flat enough in the pocket to turn the double play.

"Just a good glove."

Now, what Ripken and his struggling, staggering team need is some luck. "A couple of times, I thought I was over the hump," he said. "I had a grand slam homer hook foul by a foot. A bases- loaded fly ball hit the right field line, but it was called foul."

Two months from now, if Ripken is still headed for .250 with 20 homers, the boobirds will be yelling: "Hey, dude, have a mental margarita. Kick back. Take a whole day off."

But maybe, just maybe, a summer of hitting lessons from Robinson will smooth the wrinkles forming in Ripken's forehead as his 30th birthday approaches in August.

The least controversial player in baseball really shouldn't be surrounded by such constant controversy. Add 50 points to this guy's batting average and, suddenly, his insidious character flaws will disappear.