Cal loses burden, gains refresher

March 13, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

VIERA, Fla. -- The Orioles continued their tour of the east

coast of Florida here yesterday. Thursday was the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale, where the ushers make you feel as if you never left the Bronx. ("Yo, lemme see ya pass, pal.") Friday was the Dodgers in time-warped Vero Beach, where the P.A. announcer says Vic Damone is in the crowd and the sixtysomethings go wild. Yesterday was the brand-new Marlins in a brand-new ballpark in this brand-new city.

Cal Ripken Jr. started all three games. Of course. He starts every game at shortstop for the Orioles, just as he has since Gus Triandos was catching, or so it seems. The Orioles have once again put a batch of new infielders around him this year, but he remains unchanged, the same as he ever was. When someone asked Johnny Oates to assess Ripken's spring yesterday during batting practice, Oates just shrugged and said, "He's still Cal."

Yet there is something happening with Ripken this spring. A subtle change in his manner, his approach to the endeavor of being Cal. Not everyone has noticed. Brady Anderson insists that his good friend is no different. But the consensus among the Cal-watchers is that yes, he is different.

He seems happier. More relaxed. Maybe it's not possible for him to look younger than he has the past few years, but darn if he doesn't.

"I see a big difference," assistant GM Frank Robinson said yesterday. "He's enjoying himself more. You can tell. Just from the way he's conducting himself. He's having a good time this spring."

Ripken has always had a good time in the spring, he says. Most ballplayers do. Spring training is a low-stress gig, and it sure beats working for a living.

But Ripken himself admits that things are indeed different this spring. Different and better. The focus in the Orioles' camp is never going to stray far from him, but it is less on him now than it has been at any time since the mid-'80s.

"It's a refreshing feeling," Ripken said before yesterday's game. "I like it that people are just asking me about the team now instead of all the other things."

All the other things. There has always been a burning Ripken issue in recent springs. How would he handle the fact that his employers had fired his father and brother? Could he get along without them? Could he repeat his MVP performance of 1991? What about his new batting stance?

This year, there is no burning issue. Expectations for his offensive production have been downgraded to realistic levels. There are other All-Star talents to share the spotlight -- and the burden of delivering runs. The burning issue in the Orioles' camp is not what Cal might or might not do or say, but whether the team can win a division title after a $43 million upgrade.

"Cal being who he is, and playing where he does, he is always going to be the center of attention," Robinson said, "but there are a lot of other things to talk about now. For a while it's been just him, all him, and that's real tough. I admire him for the way he's handled it. Other people might not handle it so well. But it's finally changed this year, and that's got to be a good feeling for him."

It is -- just ask.

"I don't know that burden is the right word," Ripken said about the way things were, "but I'd much rather talk about the team's chances than Billy or my dad or whether I could hit as well as I did the year before. It's just easier this way, more relaxing. It's what I grew up with, the team coming first. I like it a lot."

It's all temporary, of course, with Ripken now just 233 games from Lou Gehrig's record. The Streak will be a monster from which he won't be able to hide next spring. But for now, with Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo joining him, he's just another bat in the order.

As recently as three years ago, he was basically the whole order; if he didn't drive in the run, it often didn't get driven in. But since then a lineup as potent as any in the game has sprouted around him.

"He can look behind him now and see people who can get the job done if he doesn't, and he should benefit from that mentally and physically," Robinson said. "It's just less pressure. It wears on you when you feel like you're the one that has to get it done. I know; I was there. When things go bad, the blame all falls on your shoulders. Cal has always gotten that, unfairly, but I don't think he will anymore."

It is not hard to tell that Ripken is more relaxed this spring. He has been more easygoing and informal with reporters. The other day he spent four innings signing autographs and talking to fans after coming out of a game. When a reporter asked him about the labor-management issue last week, he suggested that the owners couldn't prove their cry of poverty. In recent years he usually ducked such a tricky question.

Yesterday, he sat in the sun before batting practice and talked for a half-hour about a variety of topics, starting with the thrill of watching Peter Angelos start spending and never stop.

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