A fresh approach for Cal is laid to rest

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 30, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Remember Johnny Oates' idea to give Cal Ripken more rest while preserving the All-Star shortstop's consecutive-games streak?

It's, uh, on hold.

Oates said yesterday that he, indeed, plans to rest Ripken more frequently this season, but that the change won't be nearly as dramatic as he proposed last September.

"I am going to find him more rest, but I'll do it at the end of ballgames, not the start," Oates said. "I might be a little more liberal. In the past, maybe I didn't make the move until we were seven runs down. Now, I might do it at five."

Whoopee.

In September, Oates was so intent on resting Ripken, he said, "I think it's wise for me to start thinking now, start putting some plans together." He talked about using him as a designated hitter, inserting him as a substitute, removing him after one inning. But what he is suggesting now is merely an extension of the status quo.

"How much rest Cal gets this year will be in direct proportion to how we play," Oates said. "For him to get rest, we'll have to play very poorly, or very well. If we're close all the time, he might not get too much rest."

So, what else is new?

Oates never committed to a specific plan last September, but he certainly seemed intent on trying a new approach. He even cited an article that detailed the 68 times Hall of Fame first baseman Lou Gehrig was replaced during his record streak of 2,130 consecutive games.

"I don't think it's written in the rule book that he [Ripken] has to play nine innings every day to keep the streak going," Oates said then. "I can't find anywhere in the record book where there is an asterisk next to Gehrig's name. All I hear is, he [Gehrig] played so many games."

And all Oates wanted was for Ripken to play by the same rules. His streak of 1,735 games (all starts) is the second longest in major-league history. He has played all but 128 of 15,787 innings, departing early in only 44 games.

As presented by Oates, the argument for more rest still makes perfect sense -- especially against the backdrop of Ripken's career-worst, injury-riddled '92 season. But something -- or someone -- has altered the manager's thinking.

The someone, of course, could be Ripken, who told Oates initially that he could "live with" early substitutions when healthy, but almost certainly disliked the idea. Ripken takes great pride in the streak, and apparently doesn't want it tainted.

Oates, however, denies Ripken talked him out of more rest. He said he has spoken with Ripken three or four times this winter, but never about The Streak.

So, what gives?

Maybe Oates is unwilling to ruffle his franchise player knowing the Orioles just fired his father and released his brother. Or maybe he wants to avoid a controversy that might never erupt if ignored.

The streak becomes an issue only when Ripken is struggling, and now his contract and injury problems are behind him. Indeed, there is every reason to believe he will again produce 20 homers and 80 RBI, just as he did in each of his first 10 seasons.

Still, the facts remain: Ripken turns 33 in August. He plays a more demanding position than Gehrig, in an era of night games, artificial turf and cross-country travel. It's not unreasonable to suggest he needs more rest.

The Orioles, however, are in no position to give it to him. None of their utility infielders (Tim Hulett, Mark McLemore and Steve Scarsone) is proficient at shortstop. Manny Alexander, their top shortstop prospect, needs a full season at Triple-A.

Where have you gone, Rene Gonzales?

For some reason, the club never discussed adding a backup shortstop, not even after Oates' remarks last September. Now, Oates is saying, "We'll address it as we move along." Which is to say, hardly at all.

Ripken was removed nine times last year, 16 times the year before, 11 times the year before that. Let's say Oates, indeed, applies his new standard, and pulls Ripken when trailing by five runs in the seventh inning or later. That happened to the Orioles all of 13 times last season.

Assuming Oates employs the same logic with a huge lead, we're talking about maybe 20 early exits -- no appreciable difference over the past three years.

Anyone with a sense of baseball history wants to see Ripken break Gehrig's record in mid-1995. But anyone who wants to see him return to peak form must question the value of playing so many innings when it's not necessary to preserve The Streak.

Oates had it right the first time.

Sorry, even Cal Ripken gets old.

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