In April, we couldn't bear to watch Cal Ripken. Now, we can't take our eyes off him.
Throughout baseball, every head is shaking in disbelief. Ripken has amazed his world again. Just when it looked as if he was old, injured, demoralized, grieving and a parody of himself in the field and at bat, the 38-year-old legend is suddenly as hot as any hitter in baseball.
Barely a month ago, some said that his fielding, with five April errors, was so awkward and his .179 hitting so weak that he should retire to save himself from public embarrassment. Others, like me, mourned that, while he wasn't washed up yet, he might be nearing the end of the road.
On one thing, however, everybody agreed. The best was in the past for Ripken. Now, suddenly, he is hitting the ball harder, farther and more consistently than he has since his MVP season in 1991. His slugging percentage is .619 since coming off the disabled list 33 days ago.
With a new upright stance, a new batting coach, new practice habits, a new attack-the-first-strike philosophy at the plate and a refreshed attitude that's almost boyishly exuberant, Ripken seems like a new man. Or, rather, he has looked like the young Ripken.
The pain in his back is gone. He's making flashy diving stops at third base once again and even long powerful overhand throws. "The [irritated] nerve has laid down in its bed and is happy -- for now," Ripken said. On Sunday, Ripken went 6 for 6 with two home runs, a 400-foot double and six RBI. "They were six bullets," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. On Monday, Ripken had a couple of hits and drove home two runs to pass Joe DiMaggio in RBI.
Tuesday night, Ripken scalded a change-up up into the left field bleachers for his eighth home run, passing Harry Heilmann and tying Willie Stargell in career RBI. He also singled in five at-bats to raise his season average to .336. One more extra-base hit and look out Honus Wagner.
"Nothing Ripken does ever surprises me," Royals base coach Rich Dauer said Tuesday night. "His hair looks old, but his body looks young. Cal is an animal. If he has the desire, he can play for years."
That's definitely another, and very different, precinct heard from.
On Sunday night, ESPN put the radar gun on the hitters, not just the pitchers, measuring the speed of their swings. Big hitters such as Chipper Jones, Albert Belle, Ryan Klesko, Will Clark, Andruw Jones and B.J. Surhoff were in that game. Atlanta's Jones got the clock to 88 mph. Nobody else was above 87. Except 38-year-old Cal Ripken, who was timed at 89 and, once, 90 mph.
This spring, perhaps only one Oriole thought Ripken could do such things -- provided he made a few adjustments.
"I told Cal in spring training that he's a big, strong guy with a quick bat. I've been working with hitters all my life," Crowley said. "His bat is quick. Yet he's gotten jammed a lot [by inside fastballs] over the years. I told him there's no reason for that phenomenon."
Since Ripken came off the disabled list 28 games ago, he's hitting .373 with 10 doubles, 7 homers and 24 RBI. For 162 games -- just for the fun of imagining it -- that would be 58 doubles, 41 homers and 139 RBI. Who thought we would ever be able to fantasize about such hitting heroics again from him?
Ripken is so hot that he's scared to death to think about it too much. He's so hot that there's even an informal gag order in Oriole Land not to discuss The New Cal in too much detail. It's all very hush hush.
"Hi," Ripken said Tuesday night.
"Hi," I answered.
"I wanted to say, `Hi,' " he said, "but I don't want to talk to you."
"Is that because you know I want to talk about your hitting?"
"That's right," said Ripken, who's on a 17-for-34 tear.
"If you analyze it, you might jinx it."
"That's right," said Ripken. "Make that the story this time."
Manager Ray Miller has no plans to inquire.
"I don't know what he and Crowley are doing. And I don't want to know," Miller said. "Good luck getting much out of Crow. He doesn't like to take credit for anything."
"I have a policy: Leave well enough alone," Crowley said.
You mean that all of Ripken's new wrinkles are one big Orioles secret?
"Something like that," Crowley said.
Fortunately, it's impossible to suppress leaks in a clubhouse. Crowley has gotten Ripken to abandon all the grotesque stances he has used the last two seasons -- many of them in an attempt to ward off the inside fastball and to curb his career-long flaw of lunging. Instead, he is back to his basic unadorned stance of the early 1980s, when he and Crowley were teammates. Then, Ripken hit to right field extremely well, as he has been recently.
Back in 1982, after a month of Earl Weaver telling him to stand on top of the plate and pull home runs to left field, the young Ripken stood up for himself and said, "I'll do it my way." And, for 17 years, he did. His only coach was his father, Cal Sr. and, on a couple of brief occasions, Frank Robinson. Other than that, Ripken was self-taught and somewhat eccentric. Former manager Gene Mauch once said, "Someday, Ripken will have the worst swing in the Hall of Fame."
Some of us have long wondered what Ripken might do if he had one of the game's better hitting coaches at his elbow. We may be finding out. Ripken and Crowley are 20-year buddies. Crowley has him dipping his knees and crouching a bit to be in a more athletic ready-to-pounce position. This also allows Ripken to use his fast hands more and his big (slow) body less.
"Cal is as super-athletic and coordinated as any guy his size anywhere in sports," teammate Brady Anderson said. "Some of the stances he's used have prevented him from using his inherent athletic skills -- his great eyes, great hands and his [smart] ideas at the plate [in anticipating pitches].
"Now look at him. Isn't it great?"
Crowley's hitters in Minnesota, especially Kirby Puckett, were famous for attacking the first strike. One season, 40 percent of Puckett's at-bats were over after the first strike he saw. Even when pitchers know this, it doesn't help them. Indeed, it takes away the edge of an easy "strike one." They nibble more. Fall behind more. Then have to come in. In his 6-for-6 game, Ripken saw only 10 pitches the whole game, seven of them strikes. Of those, he put six in play. Tuesday night, he saw nine strikes in the game and swung at all of them.
Why should a No. 6 or 7 hitter take many pitches? Who is he setting the table for? He should be cleaning the table. And Ripken is.
Have we learned our lesson concerning Ripken once and for all?
"One thing I've never understood," Anderson said, "is why people ever bother to criticize Cal. Why don't they enjoy him until it's over?"
It's possible, just possible, that we may be able to enjoy Ripken considerably longer than we could have imagined just one month ago.
CAPTION: Cal Ripken has risen from miserable slide to hit the best he has since 1991 MVP season.