B. Ripken OK as second fiddle to Stradivarius Utility man content behind bevy of stars

Sidelight

April 06, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- If the thought that he was a better player than the Orioles' everyday infielders crossed Bill Ripken's mind, then being a bench player and going days between at-bats might be tough.

But it would be hard for him to believe that, with Roberto Alomar at second, Cal Ripken at short and B. J. Surhoff at third. "I don't think anybody enjoys not playing," Bill Ripken said yesterday. "But if you look at the whole picture, that makes it a whole lot easier to accept. If you can sit there and say, 'I can understand.' I do understand."

Bill Ripken, who hasn't played in the Orioles' first four games, understands that his playing time will be very limited this year, perhaps more so than at any time during his career. Ripken, the Orioles' regular second baseman from 1988 to '92, broke camp with the Texas Rangers in 1994 as a utility player, and would replace Dean Palmer at third base in the late innings, besides playing second.

On the '96 Orioles, however, Alomar plays every day and does not need a defensive replacement. His brother has played every day for about 14 years, and doesn't require a caddie.

And Surhoff seems to be getting better and better at third. Going into spring training, it appeared Ripken's best chance for at-bats would come as a late-inning replacement for Surhoff. But Orioles manager Davey Johnson has kept Surhoff in the game in the late innings.

"I'm not going to speak for Davey," Ripken said, "but B. J. has really come on at third base and played well. Davey doesn't want a situation where he takes him out of the lineup and loses his bat in the lineup, and B. J. is playing a good third base, as it is."

If an injury doesn't propel him into the lineup, Ripken's biggest challenge this year might be keeping sane, containing his high level of energy; he acknowledges that sitting on the bench can be frustrating.

"Does the term 'mental institution' mean anything?" said Jeff Huson, who shares the bench with Ripken.

Ripken approaches his pre-game work a little differently now. When he was a regular player, he would go through batting practice at less than full speed, the same with the grounders hit to him every day. As a part-timer, though, he must approach all of his swings in the batting cage as if he were playing in a game.

"You just deal with it the best you can," Ripken said.

As it is, the most important thing to Ripken at this stage of his career is being able to play and live at home, where he grew up.

"It means an awful lot for me to be here," he said. "I have to look at the big picture. I'm going to get a chance to play sometime, I'm on a good team, and I'm at home."

Would Ripken be happy being a utility player the rest of his career in Baltimore?

"Right now, I'd have to say yes," he said. "Obviously, if I was in Cleveland, I would probably say no."

Hits and misses

On the field: LaTroy Hawkins made his major-league debut against the Orioles last April 29, and was ripped for seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. He was much better last night, holding the Orioles to two singles in the first five innings. Hawkins left after the sixth, having allowed one run and no walks, and striking out five.

In the dugout: After throwing two innings and picking up the win in Thursday's game, Arthur Rhodes was, for all intents and purposes, unavailable for last night's game. Orioles manager Davey Johnson said he doesn't want to forget that Rhodes, regardless of his success, is a pitcher rebounding from shoulder surgery. "I don't want to take a chance to have a setback with him," Johnson said.

In the clubhouse: "That's a good quality about this team . . . it's a team that's equally balanced, good defense, good offense, good pitching." -- Kent Mercker, who threw six solid innings, allowing one run. Going into yesterday's game, the Twins had scored 30 runs in three games.

Pub Date: 4/06/96

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