In hindsight, there were clues everywhere that Cal Ripken was about to do something great in Atlanta -- from the sound of his Sunday batting practice that made Baltimore Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley take notice, to his childish abandon while playing catch in the rain with his son, Ryan, in an empty stadium hours before Friday's series opener, to Ripken's .400 average in his previous 12 games entering Sunday.
Still, no one could have predicted just how special and historic Ripken's performance Sunday would be. Six hits, a club record, and every one of them smoked. Five runs scored, another record. Two home runs. Thirteen total bases. And a stunning 22-1 victory over the Braves that still resonated the day after.
"You wake up and wonder if it actually did happen or you just dreamed it happened," Ripken said Monday. "It's nice to know it really happened."
Suddenly, it is as if March and April never happened. In those months, Ripken experienced the emotional drain of his father's death, the physical drain of a bad back, a stay on the disabled list and a terrible stretch on the field. His anemic batting average -- it had dipped to .179 -- and a string of uncharacteristic errors left many wondering if Ripken would soon retire.
Now it seems Ripken has awakened from that nightmare.
If Ripken had stopped at a mere five hits Sunday, it still would have been a lasting memory. There he was, pulling into second base with a double in the seventh inning, as what was left of the Turner Field crowd rose to its feet in appreciation. With his acute sense of the moment, Ripken knew that part of the reason for the ovation was that the Orioles would not return to Atlanta until 2001, and that this could have been his final at-bat there.
"I could feel there was some support and an acknowledgment, I guess, of a pretty good career," he said. "I've enjoyed coming to Atlanta. We don't get to come here too often, and a lot of people feel I'm not coming back. Who knows?"
But Ripken had one more at-bat left, and this time the applause began as he stepped into the on-deck circle, followed him into the batter's box and grew into a roar as he smashed a single to left to lead off the ninth, his sixth hit of the night.
"After awhile people realized, `We're seeing something special here,' " Manager Ray Miller said. "I know I almost had tears in my eyes when he got the sixth one."
By then, Ripken had raised his average 30 points, to .328 -- which would be the highest of his career if the season had ended Sunday. With 391 home runs, if Ripken keeps up his current pace he will reach 400 homers by August. He has hit .372 (42 for 113) with six homers since returning from the disabled list May 13.
What's left to be said about Ripken? "That he's absolutely amazing," answered Orioles first baseman Will Clark, whose own amazing night -- 4 for 4, with three doubles and a homer -- was overshadowed by Ripken's. "People write him off all the time, saying he should retire, that he should sit down. And he always comes out and proves them wrong. He still has not only the desire to play, but the talent and knowledge."
Said Miller: "I've been here three years and the last couple of weeks is the best I've seen him swing the bat. He seems to be right on everything. The ball really has carry. I don't remember him hitting too many balls to the right side last year, but now he's hitting balls there that are really flying."
Crowley, who was a teammate of Ripken's in the early 1980s and who now works with him closely as the Orioles' hitting coach, said Ripken's hitting stroke and exuberance are reminiscent of the Ripken of 17 years ago.
The amazing thing, Crowley said, was that all six hits "were bullets" -- not a bloop, dink or chopper among them. "They all had a great sound, and as soon as they were hit, there was no doubt."
It was that sound during Ripken's batting practice session that tipped off Crowley that Ripken was "locked in" Sunday night. "The sound of his bat hitting the ball," Crowley said, "was special."
And there was something else about Ripken that weekend. "I know him, his actions, his personality," Crowley said. "With Cal, you know right away when he's feeling good because he has a lot of energy. When he's quiet, that's when something is bothering him a little bit."
Nothing was bothering Ripken as he walked out of the clubhouse tunnel with Ryan, 5, on Friday afternoon -- both of them wearing baseball gloves, and Ryan holding a ball -- and saw the rain falling and the tarp on the field. Ryan asked if they could play catch anyway. He didn't have to ask twice. And after a few minutes of playing catch in the rain, Ripken said to his son, "Hey! Let's go check out Ted Turner's box," and together they went, bounding across the field in search of adventure.
At that moment, Ripken looked like a man at absolute peace with himself. At peace with a balky lower back, which landed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career in April. At peace with the passing of his father, an Orioles icon whose number 7 Ripken and his teammates wear on their left shoulder this season. At peace with the natural aging process, which has taken away some of his range (but, apparently, none of the pop in his bat). And at peace with his place in history.
"With the benefit of hindsight, going on the disabled list was good for me," he said. "Obviously, physically I needed to heal and get sound. And with losing my father, it turned out to be a really good time to heal mentally. . . .
"You're challenged all the time -- definitely when you experience a major injury and a major dealing in life. It makes you turn and look at yourself. You probably learn more from the negative experiences than the positive ones. It presented a challenge to come back physically and come back mentally. I couldn't have predicted it would go as well as it has gone. But I'm very happy that it has."
CAPTION: RIPKEN ON A TEAR (This chart was not available)
CAPTION: Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken, who was 6 for 6 Sunday with two homers and six runs batted in, adds two hits and two RBI last night.