On Monday in Yankee Stadium, Cal Ripken learned that he had been elected by the fans to play for the American League in the all-star game for the 17th straight time. The greatest of all Orioles celebrated in the same fashion that has marked his whole incredible back-from-the-brink season. This baseball Lazarus, who'll be 39 next month, launched the kind of 430-foot home run that he hasn't hit since his MVP season of 1991.
"At first, I thought that ball was going to go 480 feet," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said Tuesday, marveling, like the rest of baseball, at the reborn Ripken.
Ripken's towering fly off Jason Grimsley was exactly the kind of blow that Death Valley in Yankee Stadium has been swallowing for decades. Even in batting practice, Ripken hasn't been able to reach the fence there for many seasons. His best bolts almost always die on the warning track. Yet, on Monday, his quick, balanced swing drove the ball over the fence by 10 yards.
"When I'm comfortable, confident, and waiting on the ball, not jumping out to get it, I can hit the ball 430 feet. No problem," Ripken said Tuesday. His voice was full of a calm certainty that hasn't been there for a long time.
Sometimes, when the Orioles win 11 games out of 12, or immediately proceed to lose 10 in a row, it's easy to forget that, in the long view of things, this whole '80s and '90s period of Baltimore baseball has been dominated by Cal Ripken. The team won the 1983 World Series. Most of the rest is small potatoes. Albert Belle is a pimple. Whether Miller gets fired or not is a footnote. Though it would make his skin crawl to think this way, Ripken is what matters. His play, his character, his example -- everything for which he's stood.
At the moment, what Ripken stands for is raw, unadorned amazement. That home run raised his slugging average to .548 -- the second-highest of his career. Ripken has had a slugging average higher than .469 only once since 1984. In other words, Ripken isn't just back on his best form. He's hitting better than he ever has in his career, except for his very best season. And even then, in 1991, when he was the game's consensus best player, he slugged only .566.
Tuesday night, Ripken played in his 54th game -- exactly a third of a season. Because he's missed 27 games to a back injury, his true productivity has been disguised. He finished Tuesday night with a .308 average, 17 doubles and 11 homers. For a full 162-game Ripken season, that would be 51 doubles and 33 homers. He's never had 51 doubles and he had 34 homers only once (1991). His eyes lighting up at those numbers, Ripken said: "That's gratifying. . . . Everyone is genuinely happy when things go well for a player. You can feel it."
Then, true to character, Ripken smoothly slid into a riff on what a great season B.J. Surhoff is having. "That's the beauty of the sport. It's fun to watch someone who's completely confident, driving the ball, who wants to be up there with the game on the line."
Sorry, Cal, but it sounds like you're talking about yourself.
To no one's surprise, but everyone's delight, the Orioles have decided to pick up Ripken's $6.3 million option for the 2000 season. They'll announce it Wednesday. No fuss. No hassle. No negotiations. Just a big hug.
In a sense, the way Ripken has dealt with this potentially touchy option "issue" is a microcosm of the way he's coped with all his problems: by ignoring them. While other players tilt at windmills, exhaust themselves with anger or lash at their critics, Ripken disengages and focuses on what he can control: baseball. Whenever his life has gotten complicated or controversial, stressful or confusing, he's always had the same simple response. "If I hit well, the problem will go away by itself. If I don't, nothing I can do will make it go away."
In retrospect, ask yourself how often Ripken must have wanted to tell the world to shut up and take a hike. For a decade, there's always been some annoying and intrusive, yet legitimate, question nagging at him. By 1990, after three seasons of reduced power, he was already hearing, "Is your Streak wearing you out? Should you take a rest?"
Whenever the Orioles did poorly, he was asked, "Do your teammates resent you getting the spotlight? Are you enough of a leader?"
Then, in the past two seasons, as his power virtually disappeared, with just 31 homers in 1,216 at-bats, he was asked constantly, "Are you getting old? How does your back feel? Will you retire? Should you retire?"
Finally, this season, with his first trip to the disabled list, his father's death and a .179 batting average, he was asked, "Will the Orioles pick up your contract option for 2000 at the all-star break? Are you washed up?"
Now, as always seems to happen, Ripken has the last word, the perfect answer, the ultimate squelch for those who want to unravel his cloak of simple, corny, boring virtues. Ask Harold Baines, the quietest and most dignified Oriole, why Ripken has prevailed. He looks at you like you're daft.
"Cal works hard at his craft," said Baines, who's hitting .343 at 40.
Some think that these last few weeks are just a sweet late-career interlude for Ripken. Some think it won't last. Next month, back to .250 with no power again. More "Are you washed up?" questions. A well-known scout recently said, "Let's see what happens after Ripken has a cold spell."
"Who told you that?" says Ripken. His lip curls when he hears the name. He starts to comment, then stops.
"Yeah, the tough life of a professional critic," Ripken says sardonically, showing the sharp edge, always hidden from the public, but loved by his teammates. Then, the polite Ripken mask goes back up. Everyone's entitled to their opinion. Just take all the free cheap shots at The Iron Man you want.
But there's a spark in his eye. Now, with a contract for 2000 in hand, Ripken has someone new to silence -- another disbeliever, one more scoffer. That, of course, is more good news for us. Who knows how many more years all of us can keep selling short a man who played in 2,632 consecutive games? Who knows to what heights of greatness we can still nag him?