Second-base job is Bill Ripken's to lose Challenges could come from Bell, McLemore

February 29, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Bill Ripken arrived in camp this week to find second base still about 10 yards to his right. If his job was supposed to be in danger, the warning signs are difficult to detect.

Perhaps the competition just hasn't developed yet. At last roll call, Juan Bell was still in the Dominican Republic, where he had attended his sister's wedding. He is expected in camp today. The other likely candidate is Mark McLemore, 27, who has been told by manager John Oates that he'll also have to prove himself at third base and shortstop to make the team.

Ripken is the second baseman of the moment, but he came to spring training expecting a fight. And why not? He batted just .216 last year, and then spent the off-season hearing that the Orioles were going to trade with the Montreal Expos for Delino DeShields or sign free agent Juan Samuel.

"Last year was the only year I felt I had a job," Ripken said. "Coming off a .291 year and coming off a .216 year are definitely two different things."

That's true, but the fact that he played most of the year with three nagging injuries was not lost on the Orioles, who haven't forgotten that he led the club in hitting in 1990.

Ripken spent time on the disabled list with a strained rib cage and missed time with a bulging disk. He also underwent postseason surgery to remove a bone chip from his ankle.

"Billy wasn't physically well all year," general manager Roland Hemond said. "His back was bothering him and he had the chip in his ankle. The year before, he had a fine year. The ailments affected his offensive ability. Having him feeling better physically could make a difference.

"To some extent, you write off last year as an off year because he showed us a lot the year before, but he still has to do it."

That's where Bell and McLemore enter the picture. The job is Ripken's to lose -- no one will say otherwise -- but there is no guarantee that he'll be able to hang onto it. If he continues to struggle at the plate, the club will have to consider someone else.

"I'm of the opinion that Billy will play second until somebody better comes along," manager John Oates said. "I'm also under the opinion that Mike Devereaux will play center field until someone comes along, and Leo Gomez will play third until somebody better comes along. We're trying to get better at every position. Obviously, there is more need at some positions than others, but I have no problem playing Billy at second."

Bell already has had an audition, and it did not go well. He took Ripken's place for a month at midseason last year and couldn't even get his batting average into the low .200s. He also struggled in the field, leaving room to wonder whether his move from shortstop to second base was such a good idea.

The Orioles remain high on Bell, or so they say. He is the last holdover from the Eddie Murray trade, but he'll have to fulfill some of his promise soon to keep his place on the infield depth chart.

"He showed some positive signs at one stretch, but he couldn't keep it up," Hemond said. "We recognized that he was moving to a new position. We know it wasn't easy for him, but he has gotten some more experience since then."

The club has downplayed his absence the past couple of days, but it has not gone unnoticed. He can be forgiven for staying home Wednesday (the date of the wedding), but what excuse does he have for not traveling to Florida in time for the second day of full-squad workouts? Perhaps there is a reasonable explanation, but this is not the best way to win a job.

McLemore, 27, was in camp early, hoping to resurrect a once-promising career. He was considered the second baseman the future in the California Angels organization, but had to turn in a solid 1991 performance for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings to rate a non-roster invitation to the Orioles training camp this year.

"He did a good job for us at Rochester," Hemond said. "That club really picked up with him in the lineup. We brought up Ricky Gutierrez to play shortstop and having Mark at second really made things easier on him."

McLemore hopes to make things hard on the Orioles. He is a solid defensive second baseman, so a big performance at the plate would at least make him an attractive option if a need arises during the season.

"I know that when he was in California, we asked the Angels about him and they wouldn't even talk about him," Hemond said. "We could never instigate enough to get it done."

This could be something of a last stand, but McLemore stops short of saying he is trying to displace anybody in the Orioles lineup. He's just looking for a fresh start after a rocky career.

The Orioles have made no promises, but they have offered an opportunity. He cannot ask for more at this point.

"I'm not going to worry about what anyone else is doing," he said. "I know I can play, and I'm glad I have the opportunity to play. I've just been waiting to get here."

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