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That happens when a teammate dribbles with his head down. In baseball, Ripken gets ticked when a teammate throws to the wrong base or an Oriole pitcher unexpectedly throws inside instead of outside, leaving Ripken out of position. "He has no patience for anyone who plays the game incorrectly," says Flanagan.
Flanagan can't figure how Ripken keeps going. "Guys are dragging after a game, and he's in the back of the bus whooping it up. I've never seen him sleeping in a corner."
Oates says, "Everything's a game, a competition, to him. I wouldn't want to be his kid. He might play checkers with his child, and Rip would get upset because she didn't crown him soon enough."
Ripken is amused by the exaggeration, but says, "I split my head open playing checkers once." In complete detail, he describes a checkers game he played against the girl next door when he was six years old. He describes his strategy to set her up for a five-jump move. She fell for it, and he won the game, leapt and banged his head on a concrete windowsill. He needed stitches, but it was a great move.
"I grew up in a family where everything was a competition," says Ripken. "Everything you did, it was fun, you did well, you tried hard. If you didn't, it wasn't fun. I miss gym class in school, where you learned a lot of different sports. My biggest dream as a kid was to make it in baseball, then go to the Superstars competition. When my chance came, I had no time to prepare, so I didn't go. I wasn't going to go down there and just go through the motions."
That's one of Ripken's great fears in life: being unprepared, especially for a sport. That's why he studies pitchers, hitters, teams. That's why he's the master of defensive positioning at shortstop. "But even in basketball he'll tell me before a game, 'Remember, this guy can't go to his right,' " says Gonzales. "He even analyzes a stupid pickup game."
After last year, when he batted only .250, Ripken analyzed his swing, his approach, everything, and worked maniacally in the off-season to improve. "He was on a mission," says Flanagan. Ripken says, "I got away last year from what made me successful. I looked in the mirror and asked, 'Is my talent dwindling?' Instead of thinking that you're going to have a long career, you're doubting yourself, worrying. This year I've gotten things more in focus, and it's taken away any doubts."
This year, Ripken, 30, who was the American League MVP in 1983, has reached a new level. Through Sunday he was leading the league in hitting (.332) and had 21 homers and 61 RBIs with only 26 strikeouts and five errors. Should he finish the season with a .325 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs, he would become only the eighth righthanded hitter in the past 50 years to reach those numbers.
He's a candidate for MVP even though the Orioles are in sixth place in the American League East. He has an outside shot at the Triple Crown. He earned MVP honors in the All-Star Game with a three-run homer in the American League's 4-2 win. The previous day, he put on a phenomenal show in the All-Star home run contest, swatting 12 in 22 swings. All this has elevated Ripken to a new stature. Baltimore columnist John Steadman wrote last Friday in The Evening Sun that Ripken has replaced Brooks Robinson as the greatest player in franchise history.
Baseball insiders are beginning to calculate where Ripken rates among the greatest shortstops ever. "He's in the top five now," says Royals assistant general manager Joe Klein.