Cal Ripken Jr. never has looked pretty with a bat in his hands. His swing calls to mind the swat of a weekend carnivalgoer wielding the heavy mallet at the Test Your Strength attraction: Hit the bell and win a prize! Ripken clubs the ball. That he does so from a variety of odd stances reduces his aesthetic quotient. "I've always thought Cal is the best player you'll ever see who if you saw him only for one day, would make you say, 'What's the big deal?" says Texas Rangers manager Johnny Oates, who was Ripken's skipper on the Orioles from 1991 to '94.
As Ripken passes through the velvet ropes of the 3,000-hit club, he belongs to no popular genus of batter. He's not a high-average hitter, a power hitter or a hitter who reaches base often. Only Lou Brock (.343) and Robin Yount had a worse on-base percentage (.342) among the 24 men with 3,000 hits than Ripken's .344 through Sunday. Tony Gwynn, who is usually thought of as a singles hitter, has a better career slugging percentage (.459) than Ripken's .451. The sum of those percentages, often referred to as production, ranks Ripken, at .795, below every 3,000-hit member except Brock (.753), whose game was speed; Yount (.772), whose statistical profile somewhat resembles Ripken's; and Pete Rose (.784), a singles machine. After only four full years in the majors, the Seattle Mariners' Alex Rodriguez—as a big (6'3", 210-pound) shortstop the next-generation Ripken—has more 30-home-run seasons, more 100-run seasons and just as many 200-hit seasons as Ripken has in 19.
The beauty of Ripken, like sunrises and multivitamins, is that of an everyday phenomenon often overlooked. The tenacity that fueled his consecutive-game streak has been equally evident in batting cages. "Cal works to hit," Oates says. If Ripken has had one stance for every hit (only a slight exaggeration), then all 3,000 stances have had a purpose. Whim isn't in the Ripken dictionary. One of his favorite slump-busting drills is to put a batting tee on home plate in an empty stadium about five hours before a game and whack about 10 dozen baseballs, many of which fly out of the park—an extremely difficult feat with a ball that's not pitched. Most players hit into a net when they use a tee. "I want to see how the ball carries," Ripken explains.
For pitchers, the book on Ripken is in constant rewrite. What stance is he using this week? Which pitches is he driving this series? Two years ago he contorted his body into a hunched batting stance to compensate for a painful back injury. He still hit .271.
"He adjusts as well as anybody in the game," says New York Yankees righthander David Cone. "One time you may think you can get him down and in, and he'll drop the bat head straight down on [the pitch] and pull it. The next time you'll go away, thinking he's looking inside, and he'll reach out and just turn his wrists over and hook it out of the ballpark. He's the master of making adjustments."
"He reminds me of Yaz, especially late in his career," Yankees manager Joe Torre says, recalling Carl Yastrzemski, another player who had 3,000 hits. "Yaz would constantly change his stance and find a way to beat you. Same with Cal. He gives you a little something different every time."
The .278 career batting average, like a one-game sample of Ripken, doesn't properly define him. "The batting average would be higher if he'd taken proper rest," Torre says. "Playing all those games took a toll. When you play hurt and play tired, your batting average will suffer."
So go ahead. Calibrate Ripken if you will. But be careful with your math as you arrive at the sum of a devoted career. This is one equation in which 2,632 is greater than 3,000.