Backups were idles for Ripken

September 06, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

Two types of players have backed up the Orioles shortstop who has needed little or no backup the past 14 seasons.

Career utility men saw it as a way of making a living. Aspiring shortstops viewed it as a frustrating early-career experience.

None of them got to play shortstop very much.

From June 30, 1982, to Sept. 14, 1987, no one played there at all. Except Cal Ripken. He played 8,243 consecutive innings, beginning that streak with a month at third base in May 1982 and continuing it for the next five seasons as the exclusive shortstop.

Ripken's backups got about as much use during those five years as the first base and third base coaching boxes.

Blame it on Lenn Sakata, an Orioles utility player from 1980 to 1985. Sakata started at shortstop for most of the first three months of the 1982 season before losing the job to Ripken for good.

"I was a utility player; I didn't see him as a rival," said Sakata, now manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines, a Japanese team. "I knew what my job was -- to come in and back up the regular. That shortstop deal sort of fell into my lap."

The next time the opportunity to play shortstop fell into someone's lap was Sept. 14, 1987. Ron Washington was the beneficiary. The Orioles were losing 18-3 to the Toronto Blue Jays. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Cal Ripken Sr. did what no Orioles manager had done for five years -- he told his shortstop to take a rest.

Washington entered the game, playing shortstop in Ripken's place for half an inning.

Now a coach with the Tidewater Tides, the New York Mets' Triple-A affiliate, Washington did not understand the historical significance of that half-inning until he saw his name on the scoreboard during a minor-league game in Columbus, Ga.

Washington was the answer to a trivia question.

"It really didn't dawn on me that I replaced a legend," Washington said.

Washington, a 10-year veteran who played in 26 games during his lone season with the Orioles, never returned to that position. He went back to his roles as the team's extra infielder, outfielder and pinch runner without complaint.

"I don't think anybody can go to Baltimore and expect to play shortstop," Washington said.

Two Orioles prospects, both of whom grew up in the Dominican Republic as lifelong shortstops, tried.

Juan Bell, the Orioles' prize from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Eddie Murray trade, was billed before the 1989 season as the shortstop who would force Ripken to return to third base. Ripken moved during spring training but started the regular season at shortstop. Bell, who spent three seasons in the Orioles' organization, never seriously challenged him again.

"It was tough for me to try to get his job," said Bell, now a utility player for the Boston Red Sox. "He's an animal. He never gets tired. You see him taking ground balls, batting practice, during the game he runs hard every time."

Bell filled in for Ripken 12 times at shortstop as a late-inning defensive replacement, second behind Tim Hulett's 22 appearances. The Orioles tried starting Bell at second and third base. Neither experiment worked.

Manny Alexander was the next challenger, another slick-fielding Dominican whom the Orioles envisioned as Ripken's replacement. That still hasn't happened.

Unlike Bell, Alexander has made the transition to second base. But he harbors the same frustrations Bell did about wanting to be an everyday major-league shortstop.

"I tell you the truth, it's really bad," Alexander said. "I hope when he breaks the record he moves to third base, so I can show the Orioles what I can do at shortstop."

Alexander has filled in for Ripken nine times, including seven this season. But, with Ripken playing in 99.2 percent of the innings during his consecutive-games streak, the opportunities are few and far between.

"I didn't think it was going to be this long," Alexander said. "I would have gone somewhere else. Now that I have seen everything, I know he'll be here forever."

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