Walk on mild side Bill Ripken: Infielder is shedding 'Wild Bill' nickname he earned in his previous stint with the Orioles.

June 23, 1996|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

As rain flooded the Orioles dugout Monday, catcher Gregg Zaun was planning to wade out into the waist-high water with a fishing rod.

Standing nearby was Bill Ripken. During his early years with the Orioles, Ripken might have asked Zaun if he needed some bait, but on this night, he advised Zaun against the stunt.

"I said, 'You don't need to be doing that,' " Ripken said. "Going out there was something that I probably would have done five or six years ago and thought nothing of it. Now, I look at it and see we're not going as good as we should be as a team, and I told Z-Man it's just not the right time to do that. Five years ago, I probably would have been out there swimming in that dugout."

The Bill Ripken who plays for the Orioles now is in many ways different from the one who played in Baltimore from 1987 to 1992 and earned the nickname "Wild Bill."

Since departing, Ripken became a father with the birth of daughter Miranda in August 1994. He endured two lean years with the Texas Rangers and a return trip to Triple-A last year in Buffalo, N.Y.

He's more mature and pragmatic because of it.

"I may pick and choose my spots a little more selectively now than I used to," Ripken said. "Spontaneity used to just fire out of me. Now, I can see something, want to do it, and then say, 'No, this is not the right time to do that.' Maybe I've gotten smarter. Maybe I've learned over the years that you can't say or do anything you want to. It's time, age and experience. You look back at things now and know not to do it quite the same way."

Not that Ripken was ever out of control, although some may have thought his jokes and pranks were ill-timed or in questionable taste. The most public incident occurred in 1989, when a vulgar phrase was visible at the end of a bat Bill was holding in a baseball card photo. Bill says he was unaware the picture was being taken for a card.

Cal Ripken said "Wild Bill" was always more perception than reality.

"His nicknames and some of the things he's done give off the impression that he's a little careless and reckless," Cal Ripken said. "But I can tell you he's always been a very responsible person to himself, his family and his team. But the perception that he's a wild man still exists."

Bill has been a productive addition to the Orioles. He's always been gifted with the glove. He filled in well at third base, an unfamiliar position, when B. J. Surhoff was on the disabled list in late May. And he's hitting .274.

Not to mention his effect on team morale.

"He does not do the wacko things that he once did," longtime bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said. "But it's still in him. He's still Billy. It will surface from time to time, which is good, because we need that type of character on this ballclub. There are too many individuals, or individualists, on this ballclub. It's refreshing to see Billy. That's what keeps a ballclub going through the dog days. I'm happy that we have him back."

Ripken's voice can still be heard echoing through the clubhouse before games, a big smile on his face. You might find him feverishly breaking in a glove by whipping it to the ground repeatedly or running around with dolls in his hands. It's just Bill being Bill.

Former pitcher Mike Flanagan, who was Bill Ripken's teammate for three seasons, said Ripken's contributions to team chemistry should not be underestimated.

"Maybe he's a little less daring now," Flanagan said. "But he's still very enthusiastic. That's the way he goes about life. He mixes real well. He does not pick friends by dollar signs. Billy is just as apt to get on somebody that's doing real well contract-wise, as well as a rookie. He picks no favorites. He's kind of the voice of reason. Well, maybe it's unfair to have Billy as the voice of reason, but I think he is."

Hendricks said it was Ripken's tenacity and willingness to play hurt that may have cost him his job with the Orioles in 1992.

When Ripken was healthy, his offensive production was solid, as in 1990, when he led the team with a .291 average and 28 doubles. But he played through recurring shoulder, rib and back injuries in 1991 and 1992, which led to averages of .216 and .230, respectively.

He was released by the Orioles, and hamstring problems and two unproductive years in Texas eventually left Ripken back in the minors with Cleveland's Triple-A club in Buffalo.

Returning to Triple-A was educational, Ripken said. He became a mentor to the rookies, as would be expected from a former major-leaguer and Cal Ripken's brother. But Bill was watching the youngsters, too, and learning from their mistakes.

"There's more of a clear-cut right or wrong way to do things," Ripken said. "I just stepped back and watched some of those guys. It helped having somebody young and wild around and watching what they do. Then you can shake your head at them. But, hey, I did that when I was their age, too."

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