No time like now for Alexander

June 10, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

Bill Ripken started at second base for the Orioles yesterday at Camden Yards because Roberto Alomar suggested the idea to manager Davey Johnson before the game.

"If we're going to be ready to play in September, we're going to need to have all of our guys going," Alomar said. "We have to get everybody ready."

It was a noble sentiment that was nothing if not dead-on accurate, and, of course, Johnson loved it; he has been preaching the idea of putting the team's interests ahead of individual concerns.

All of which brings us to the case of Manny Alexander, the Orioles infielder who is stuck on the bench as though he were nailed there.

He won't nearly be "ready" by September at the rate he is going (20 at-bats in 58 games). His position, shortstop, is occupied by Cal Ripken, who has started 2,211 consecutive games.

Alexander, 25, might or might not have skills that could help the Orioles win -- he was brilliant in spring training -- but there is no way of knowing because he is spending his best years rotting away on the bench.

Everyone knows why there was no room at shortstop during the past few seasons, but what about after Ripken clears a final historical hurdle later this week and breaks Sachio Kinugasa's world record for consecutive games played?

Once Ripken's streak is officially second to none, why must Ripken continue to play while Alexander continues to rot?

You can be sure that Johnson already has asked himself that question. And, as a manager so obviously intent on establishing a team-first tone, you can also be sure that Johnson will be tempted to give Alexander a start.

Sit Ripken.

Stop the streak.

Yes, the day might be coming, sooner than later.

And as sacrilegious as some might think that is, it is neither

ridiculous nor heretical.

It's just sound management.

The Orioles have valued Alexander enough to hold onto him for this long; they need to find out, at long last, whether he can contribute.

Maybe he can.

No, he won't take Ripken's job, hit with more power or play more consistently, but he does have his own set of assets that might prove helpful.

He has speed. Range. A stunningly powerful arm. A dramatic flair.

Alomar is right that the Orioles need to incorporate all 25 players if they're going to make a run at the playoffs, and that means they need to incorporate Alexander, too. Otherwise, why have him on the team?

He couldn't play before now because Ripken was establishing a monumental record. Ripken's position was untouchable.

But the landscape will change if Ripken goes ahead and passes Kinugasa on Friday night in Kansas City. His task will be complete, no asterisks, no goals left.

Why keep extending the streak and playing him every day after that?

Certainly not to make sure the streak is beyond the reach of all challengers. If Ripken hasn't done that already, he isn't going to.

No, the only reason to keep playing him every day is that it makes him happy. And as important as that is, Johnson clearly has decided that it's not too important. Otherwise, he wouldn't have pinch run for Ripken in one game, dropped him to seventh in the order for a while and contemplated moving him to third base.

All of that was intended to indoctrinate Ripken to the idea that he would be just another player once he passed Kinugasa; that he would be vulnerable to his manager's whims, like all other players; that he probably would sit out a game one of these days.

It needs to happen.

Ripken is the polar opposite of a me-first prima donna, but, let's face it, he has become bigger than the Orioles over the past few years.

He didn't intend for that to happen, but the Orioles have been consistently bad and Ripken has been a shining light and, well, it happened.

Anyway, Johnson has correctly decided that the situation needed to change, that the Orioles needed to get back to a mindset built around the team instead of one player's wonderful accomplishments.

Thus does it appear more and more likely that he'll give Alexander a shot once all consecutive-games records are broken.

Oh, Johnson might let Bill Ripken start at shortstop on the day he decided to sit Cal. That would be the proper way to honor Cal on such a day.

But in the end, the idea would be to give Alexander a handful of starts, fold him into the team's framework and see what happened.

It wouldn't be an insult to Ripken. Every other player in the major leagues is treated in similar fashion, given an occasional day off for the benefit of others on the team.

Alexander needs such a break now. And his talent is such that he deserves such a break.

The Orioles, who have spent $48 million on a team that is struggling, are just doing themselves a disservice if they don't employ every available asset.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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