Ripken may not hit, but no way he'll sit

MIKE LITTWIN

September 09, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

You're the manager. Here's the problem.

You've got a badly slumping, ex-home-run-hitting designated hitter (with a slightly strained ligament in his neck) who's a black hole in the middle of your lineup.

You've also got a badly slumping, ex-home-run-hitting shortstop who would have to get red-hot to make it to a black hole.

What to do?

If you're manager Johnny Oates, you bench the DH. Are you with me so far?

And you move the shortstop, who hit his last homer sometime during the Truman administration, in the lineup, to the cleanup spot?

You read it right. Cleanup.

Does this make any sense?

Well, strangely, yes, it does. And you'd better know why, too; otherwise, forget this business about being the manager.

It makes sense because the shortstop is Cal Ripken and the DH is the oft-injured Glenn "HMO" Davis. And you don't bench Cal Ripken. That's one of the first rules of baseball. You fire the commissioner. You trade Jose Canseco. You ban chewing tobacco (OK, just in the low minors).

But you can't take Ripken out of the lineup.

"Not if you want to keep your job," Oates said yesterday.

Oates wants to keep his job. And so he is mindful of The Streak (1,711 games' worth). How could he be otherwise?

The Streak is bigger than Oates.

It's bigger than Ripken.

It's bigger than homerless streaks (Ripken's reached 69 last night.)

It's so big and so blinding that Oates talks about how Ripken is hitting the ball hard now. (He is actually, a little harder. Am I blind, too?)

Oates could -- and he might if it were anyone other than Ripken -- bench the shortstop tonight, meaning, with a day off tomorrow, he'd have two days off and could, conceivably, come back refreshed. Maybe he'd be sufficiently rested to hit another double.

But Oates won't. When he got the job as Orioles manager, he said he wouldn't.

"Baseball won't allow it," he said then.

And now that he's had a year to think it over, Oates says: "The only way I'd take him out of the lineup is if he came into my office and said he didn't think he should play."

It's Ripken's call. And, though he never admits it, The Streak owns him. He can't sit out unless there's a broken bone involved. In other words, if he's not in a cast, he's in the lineup.

Would you take him out?

Oates fielded the question pretty well.

"Who would you put in there in his place?" he said.

Someone mentioned Tim Hulett, just for a game, of course.

"Tim Hulett?" Oates said, his reading glasses slipping off his nose. "Nothing against Tim. But you'd put Hulett in there over Cal at shortstop?

"You'd put [Steve] Scarsone in there ahead of Cal? No offense to him, either. You can't do that. Whatever Cal is doing, our best lineup is with him playing shortstop."

All right. Maybe so. But cleanup?

Ripken is hitting .191 since June 30. In his 16 games in the No. 5 slot, he hit .178. In two at-bats in the No. 4 slot, he is hitting .000. As spectacular as he was last season, that's how disappointing he's been this season.

But who does bat cleanup? Sam Horn, back in the lineup, was 1-for-his-past-28 and hadn't hit a home run himself since July 1. Chris Hoiles, his wrist mended, has a hot bat again. But the higher Hoiles bats in the lineup, the cooler he seems to get. Does he have a fear of heights?

Ripken, at least, is comfortable in the position. Of course, the way he has been hitting, the pitchers are as comfortable with him there as he is. But there was the double that bounced into the seats Monday night. He has hit the warning track a few times. Given Ripken's long, long slump, these few points of light are now interpreted as the coming of a lightning storm.

The real question on Ripken is this: What would it accomplish to sit him down for a game now?

It could, if possible, mess up his mind even more than it is now.

It would hurt the Orioles defensively.

Mostly, though, it would put to an end, probably for no reason, to one of the great accomplishments in baseball history. You can argue the merits of The Streak. You can argue whether it's selfish or unselfish. You can say that it gets in Ripken's way (although you'd have had a hard time saying that last season).

But now that The Streak has grown to this size, you can't do anything with it but feed it every night.

That's how Oates sees it. And, hey, he's going to be Manager of the Year.

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