Bill Ripken showing why he's back where he belongs

March 28, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Bill Ripken hustled to second base for the throw, then whipped the ball to first for the double play.

"Amazing, isn't he?" Brady Anderson said, watching the late innings of the Orioles-Dodgers game on the clubhouse television Tuesday.

"Did you see that play he made at third yesterday?" Chris Hoiles asked.

"He can really pick it," Anderson replied.

Ask any Oriole.

Ripken, 31, is going to make the club not because he's Cal brother, but because he's a legitimate major-leaguer.

After a slow start this spring, he's batting .371 with a club-high eight doubles, and playing his usual terrific defense as a utility infielder.

"The last two or three weeks, he's played as well or better than anyone in camp," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said.

Yet Ripken spent nearly all of last season at Triple-A, returning to the minors for the first time since 1987.

He was the same player.

He was just in the wrong organization.

The Cleveland Indians were the best team in the American League, and with Alvaro Espinoza as their sole utility infielder, they had no use for Ripken.

"There couldn't have been two or three clubs where he would have spent the whole year in the minors," Mike Mussina said. "He just happened to be with one of them."

It was not a happy experience.

Ripken considered quitting on the first road trip. He went into a weeklong funk when he failed to get a major-league offer in July. And he said he "wasn't totally myself" the night of Sept. 5, when he visited Camden Yards to watch Cal tie Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to be out there," said Bill, the Orioles' starting second baseman from July 1987 through 1992.

"I don't know if I was feeling sorry for myself, but when the sixth rolled around, I realized it wasn't about me, it was about him, what he had done. Then I was cool."

As Ripken describes it, the entire season was an emotional roller coaster. There were things he liked -- the ballpark in Buffalo, the quality of the team, the camaraderie in the clubhouse. Many of his teammates were former major-leaguers in the same bind, and they drew on each other for support.

Still, after seven consecutive years in "The Show," Ripken found it difficult to adjust to minor-league clubhouses and minor-league travel. In fact, he was so appalled by the conditions, he took photographs -- seven rolls of 36, a total of 252 shots.

Just what the world needs -- a baseball version of "The Grapes of Wrath." Ripken, though, said he snapped the pictures to preserve his sanity -- and prove his point. "You wouldn't believe what I was saying if I had told you the things I saw," he said.

That first trip to New Orleans, he phoned his wife, Candace.

"I'm quitting," he told her. "I can't do this."

"She said, 'You can't,' " Ripken recalled. "I said, 'You're right, I can't.' I don't know what I would have done if she said, 'Yeah, go ahead.' It crossed my mind. It crossed a lot of people's minds on that team."

Ripken had a window in his contract where he was free to negotiate with any club from July 1 to 10. The Orioles had interest, but were unable to trade Bret Barberie, who was earning $985,000.

So, Ripken remained in Buffalo, leading the team in doubles, getting selected to the Triple-A All-Star Game, posting the fourth-highest fielding percentage by a shortstop in American Association history.

He was too good for that league; everyone said it, from players to scouts to managers. Ripken still recalls Joe Pettini, the Louisville manager, joking, "Would you get out of here?"

"You keep hearing it and keep hearing it, and you say, 'Darn, if everyone says it, why aren't I up there?' " Ripken said. "That made it a little difficult, to keep hearing that."

There was speculation that he might rejoin the Orioles in September, perhaps only for the two games in which Cal was scheduled to tie and break Gehrig's record.

Bill found such talk ridiculous.

"I didn't even think that was a possibility, nor did I want it to be a possibility," he said. "When I heard about that, it kind of annoyed me. That's not what I'm about.

"I even called [Indians GM] John Hart and said no, that's not going to happen. He said, 'Well, nobody ever called me.' I would have been like a pawn. That wouldn't have been a fair to a bunch of people involved."

He stayed with Buffalo through the American Association finals, then joined the Indians on Sept. 15, appearing in eight games. Now that he's back with the Orioles, it's all worked out for the best.

"I really found out these past three years what it's like to play at home -- because I didn't," said Ripken, who spent '93 and '94 with Texas. "If last year can get me a few more years in the big leagues, then everything was worth it."

Ask any Oriole.

He belongs.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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