NO OTHER sport but baseball speaks to us so fluently with a
language of numbers. Someone need only say 61, 162, 511, 755 or
the suddenly archaic 2,130, and you understand perfectly. That
is another reason to appreciate Cal Ripken Jr., who puts up
bigger numbers than the Maddencruiser's odometer. His career is
not so much reduced to numbers as it is eloquently translated
Most simply, he is number 8 for the Orioles, though in itself
that does not distinguish him from Dave Skaggs, from whom he
inherited the uniform number, or Foster Castleman or Kal
Segrist or 10 other Oriole predecessors who wore 8, including
Marvelous Marv Throneberry. In 1995, because of the
consecutive-game streak, Ripken had a regular spot on sports
pages across the country--his numbers turning as relentlessly as
those on the National Debt billboard or the Coors Field
Ripken himself observed that he was often defined by the
Streak--but that was an incomplete definition. Nothing
encapsulated his skills better than his 1991 season, his career
year that came and went like spontaneous combustion.
Coming off a career-worst .250 season, Ripken spiked up 73
points in what was one of the greatest years ever by a
shortstop. The following season, he promptly dropped all but one
of those 73 points and also nosedived to career worsts over a
full season for home runs (14) and runs batted in (72).
September 14, 1995
"That was a big season for me from a mental frame of mind,"
Ripken says of 1991. "I had turned 30 the previous summer. When
your numbers are a little down you ask yourself, Is that a sign
that my career's on the decline? If you're going in the wrong
direction you don't know how many years you have left. In the
off-season I got into the best shape I've ever been in. I had to
find an answer to that question."
Ripken rang up the biggest numbers of his career in 1991--among
them, the .323 batting average, 34 home runs and 114 RBIs. It
was a season above all others to count on a player of Cal's
1 was his perfect grade in the Elias Sports Bureau player
rankings, making Ripken and Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly
(1987) the only players to be so judged in the 14-year history
of the statistical evaluation used to determine free-agent
In reviewing the 1990 season, the Elias Baseball Analyst
suggested that Ripken had played poorly because he was a willing
victim of his own streak. Asked the Analyst, "Is it a
coincidence that for three consecutive seasons Ripken has hit
below .220 during September and October (for a composite .213
mark)? And in the event of a pennant race, might not some of
Ripken's own teammates ask whether another September swoon was
the result of his single-minded quest for individual glory?"
Ripken, though, did salvage something from that miserable season
that made his huge '91 campaign possible. By June 13, 1990,
Ripken was hitting only .209 and batting sixth rather than his
customary third spot. "I forgot how I hit, how I learned to do
it," he later admitted. Then Oriole manager Frank Robinson
pulled Ripken into the batting cage and offered this advice:
Spread your feet more and flex your knees when you take your
batting stance, and let the ball come to you. Ripken hit .274
over the rest of the season, his exact career batting average at
the time. That off-season, he worked on his hitting more than he
ever had in his life.
He fell into a groove immediately in spring training 1991,
hitting a career-high .380 there, and kept going. He hit .338 in
April, .349 in May, .371 in June and reached the All-Star break
batting a league-best .348. It was the first time a shortstop
had led his league in hitting at the break since Lou Boudreau of
the Indians did so in 1948. Then Ripken drilled 12 home runs in
22 swings to win the All-Star home run hitting contest, and the
next day pounded a three-run home run in the American League's
4-2 victory to earn All-Star Game MVP honors.
2 players won a league MVP award, the All-Star Game MVP award,
a Gold Glove Award and The Sporting News Major League Player of
the Year award in the same year: Ripken and the Dodgers' Maury
Wills (1962, the first time the All-Star Game MVP was presented).
Despite his problems at the plate in 1990, Ripken made a
record-low three errors at shortstop that season. During one
stretch he handled 431 consecutive chances without an error,
another record. But league managers and coaches gave the Gold
Glove for shortstops to Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox, who
committed 17 errors. "What do I have to do?" Ripken asked then.
"Jeez, I don't know. I'd like to win one of those, to be honest
He did in '91. While his errors increased to 11 (still an
impressive number for a shortstop who rarely missed an inning of
work), he led the league's shortstops in putouts (267), assists
(529), chances (807), fielding percentage (.986) and double
"It has been a phenomenal year," he said upon winning his first
Gold Glove. "The things that happened on the field made it seem
like I was on a constant hot streak. I never had a slump."
3 players were voted MVP despite being on a losing team:
Ripken, Ernie Banks (1958, '59 Cubs) and Andre Dawson ('87 Cubs).
Ripken was this good: No one has ever won an MVP award playing
on a team that was as lousy as Baltimore was in 1991. The
Orioles finished 24 games out of first place while losing 95
games, 10 more than Dawson's Cubs (the previous worst team to
have an MVP). First baseman Glenn Davis, whom Baltimore signed
for $3.3 million to bat cleanup and provide Ripken with
protection, missed 105 games because of injuries. It didn't
Ripken was practically robotic the way he would bounce into his
crouch for every pitch, like a spring coiling itself. He would
hold the bat almost parallel to the ground off his right
shoulder. Then, with the baseball on its way, he would jerk the
bat up, a trigger mechanism for a swing that never inspired
poetry. Even in the best of times Ripken clubs the ball more
than he strokes it, as if wielding a sledgehammer, a style that
in other seasons has left him prone to hot and cold spells of
4 shortstops hit 30 home runs in a season: Ripken, Banks (five
times), Vern Stephens (1949 and '50 Red Sox) and Rico Petrocelli
('69 Red Sox).
Not before 1991 or since has Ripken hit more than 28 home runs
in a season. But his power surge that year provided another
reason to consider his season one of the finest all-around years
ever by a shortstop. Of the four shortstops to hit 30 homers,
only two of them also batted .300 and had 100 RBIs in those
seasons: Banks (1958 and '59) and Ripken. Unlike Ripken, Banks
did not win a Gold Glove in either of those seasons--certainly
not in 1958, when he committed 32 errors.
Banks, though, did reduce his errors to 12 the following season.
Also, he led his league in fielding percentage for shortstops
and in RBIs (143) that same year--a stunning combination--while
slugging 45 home runs and batting .304. Otherwise, when it comes
to the greatest season ever by a shortstop, no one else gets in
line ahead of Ripken.
5 triples, 34 home runs, 46 doubles and 125 singles for 368
total bases were the most by an American League shortstop.
Did someone say swoon? Ripken was Mr. September in '91, earning
player of the month honors with a .349 batting average and eight
home runs, his high for any month that season. Until that year,
Ripken was a career .281 hitter before Aug. 1 and .264
thereafter. He hit .320 down that stretch in 1991. No one
mentioned the wearying effects of the consecutive-game streak.
"I don't worry about what people say about that anymore," he
said that season. "I used to fight it, and it used to bother me
when people said I was hurting myself and hurting the team by
playing every day. I know I'm not. To me, the least I can do is
come out and play every day. If people don't agree, there's
nothing I can do about it. I guess you'd say I've reached a
peace with all of that."
6 American League players in the past 60 years hit 30 home runs
while striking out fewer than 50 times: Ripken, Mattingly, Ted
Williams, Al Rosen, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig.
He was so difficult to put away that season that Ripken batted
.297 in counts with two strikes, better than every player in the
league except second baseman Willie Randolph of the Brewers.
"Hitting is basically about waiting as long as you can," he said
halfway through the '91 season. "There were times [in 1990] when
I wasn't waiting, when I was jumping out with no idea as to
where the pitch was going to be or even what kind of pitch it
was. I committed myself to the swing way too early. [Now] I'm
patient, I'm selective and I'm waiting. They're little changes,
not big ones."
7 seasons came between his two MVP years, the second-longest
hiatus in history after the 10 seasons between Willie Mays's
1954 and '65 awards.
Ripken won his first MVP award in 1983, the season in which he
turned 23. He ended that year by clutching the last out of the
World Series, a line drive by Garry Maddox of the Phillies in
Game 5. He ended his 1991 season by grounding into a double play
against Frank Tanana of the Tigers in the regular-season finale.
With Oriole Park at Camden Yards going up, it was the last major
league at bat at Memorial Stadium.
The next month Ripken revisited the old, familiar stadium where
he had once watched Frank Robinson give Baltimore its first
world championship with a home run in Game 4 of the 1966 World
Series and where he had seen Eddie Murray belt one out in the
This time he returned to Memorial to toast the announcement of
the MVP voting at a press conference; he had won by 32 votes,
exactly as he had in 1983. He raised a fancy piece of stemware
and downed it. It was filled with milk.
8 players hit 20 home runs in 10 consecutive seasons, starting
in their rookie year: Ripken, Rocky Colavito and six Hall of
Famers--Reggie Jackson, Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Eddie
Mathews, Ted Williams and DiMaggio.
Ripken did not hit 20 home runs the following season, in 1992.
In fact, from June 24 through Sept. 13 of that year, Ripken did
not hit any home runs. The 73-game homer drought easily was the
worst of his career. That same stretch included the worst
20-game span overall of his career, a 79 at bat nightmare in
which he hit .101.
"I've seen him the last four years," said his manager then,
Johnny Oates. "This year he doesn't look the same."
Ripken conceded it was his "toughest year physically." He was
hit by pitches on the elbow and in the back, drove himself to
frustration trying to duplicate his 1991 stance and swing, and
seemed drained by in-season contract negotiations that on Aug.
24 were finally resolved and ended speculation that he might
leave Baltimore as a free agent after the season. He signed a
five-year contract worth $30.5 million.
By September Ripken looked so worn that Oates openly talked
about occasionally using him as a designated hitter or pinch
hitter the following season to provide him with some rest while
preserving the Streak. "It's too late for this year," Oates
said, "but I want to prevent this from happening next year."
Of course, Ripken took no slack. Nor did he worry about possibly
reaching the beginning of the end of his career, the kind of
anxiety that inspired him after the 1990 season. This time he
carried the reassurance of that monster '91 season. That's why
he says, "Even though I had my worst year in '92, I knew my
skill level wasn't declining. I knew it was still there."
He knows the language. The numbers tell a story. They do not lie.