Ripken brings two journeymen along for ride

September 05, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Who's on third?

The answer will only be a matter of history, but true to form in this disastrous season, the Orioles don't know for sure.

"I wonder if Phil [Regan] accepts bribes," Jeff Manto said.

"I'd be willing," Jeff Huson added.

"Give him a pair of spikes, that might do it," Manto said.

For weeks, the two journeymen have been needling each other, trying to figure out who would start at third base the night Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

Now, it appears Huson has hit the lottery.

Four of the five California starting pitchers are left-handers. Manto usually plays third against left-handers. But tomorrow night -- drum roll, please -- the Angels plan to start right-hander Shawn Boskie.

If Regan follows his recent pattern -- and the manager can't exactly be trusted, seeing as how he thinks Ripken needs a day off -- Manto would play tonight, and Huson tomorrow.

That would make Huson the answer to the trivia question: Which Oriole was standing closest to Ripken the night he broke Gehrig's record? And it would give Manto another reason to be steamed at the Angels.

"First they send me to Quad Cities for two years," said Manto, referring to his former Single-A team in the California organization. "Then they throw a right-hander."

Manto, 30, figured he'd be a lock to start the record-breaker, especially after checking with California manager Marcel Lachemann when the Orioles were in Anaheim on Aug. 24-27.

It isn't every day that a player approaches an opposing manager and inquires about his pitching rotation for a future series. But at a moment like this, protocol goes only so far.

"I think you've got a good shot," Lachemann told Manto.

"A four-out-of-five shot," Manto groaned yesterday, sounding like a horseplayer who placed a cinch bet and lost.

Huson was at home Friday night when he heard Boskie would start the record-breaker for the Angels. He got the news -- how else? -- watching ESPN's "SportsCenter."

"It's something millions of people dream about," Huson said. "I can't even put into words how I would feel about playing next to him."

Huson, 31, is a veteran of milestone games -- he was the Texas shortstop when Nolan Ryan threw his sixth and seventh no-hitters, and for Ryan's 300th win.

But three months ago, the odds he might play alongside Ripken tomorrow were astronomical. Huson opened the season at Triple-A Rochester and didn't join the Orioles until Manto went on the disabled list June 25.

Talk about a long shot: Huson is a primarily a middle infielder. He played 36 games at third for Texas in 1990, but that was the extent of his third-base experience before Regan began platooning him with Manto.

Now, Huson has a little game he plays with Ripken when they take the field in the first inning. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro makes like a quarterback. Ripken runs a post or flag pattern. And Huson tries to defend.

It's a touchdown if Palmeiro gets the practice ball to Ripken. Huson admits to poor coverage of late -- "It's been in the back of my mind, don't get near him." Ripken has even told him a few times, "You could have had that ball."

"I don't know if he [Huson] has been backing off -- I've just been putting the ball on the money," said Palmeiro, campaigning for a job with the Baltimore Stallions. "We've scored so many touchdowns, it's not even funny."

Tomorrow night?

"I won't even be within five feet of him [Ripken]," Huson said. rTC "I'm going into the prevent defense. I don't want to prevent him from the streak."

Then there is the matter of what Huson or Manto would do once the game becomes official. They'll be on the field with Ripken if the Orioles are trailing, which has been their habit of late.

"Do I stand there and let him get the applause? Do I shake his hand?" Huson asked.

"I don't know what I'd tell him -- 'Way to go? Good job? Are you tired yet?' " Manto said.

Huson jokingly suggested the players start a standing-ovation pool.

"You'd start at five minutes," Huson said. "But the guy who got five minutes, he'd be done."

Huson and Manto -- at the start of the season, one was in the minors, the other was on the Orioles' bench. Neither imagined he might be standing next to Ripken on either of these historic nights.

Leo Gomez was the Orioles' third baseman, but he lost his job to Manto, then went on the disabled list. Now, one way or the other, Manto figures to be part of history. Tonight or tomorrow, it really doesn't matter.

"The last 10 years, I've been a nobody, a career minor-leaguer," he said. "All of a sudden, to get in a situation like this, it makes all that hustle, all that struggle well worth it.

"They say if you put in enough time you'll be rewarded. I've been rewarded by a National League championship [with the Phillies in '93]. This will definitely be right up there with that."

Who's on third?

The answer will be on the lineup cards posted outside Regan's office tonight and tomorrow. The two Jeffs know the journeyman routine -- walk into the clubhouse, gaze at the lineup, try to act cool.

"I don't want to presume anything," Huson said. "I'm not presuming anything until the first pitch."

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