At third, Cal Ripken Orioles: For the first time since 1982, someone else -- Manny Alexander -- starts at shortstop.

July 16, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Cal Ripken, the Orioles' only starting shortstop since July 1, 1982, moved to third base last night as part of a shake-up by manager Davey Johnson, ending a streak of 2,216 consecutive starts at short.

Johnson informed Ripken of the move Sunday evening, shortly after the New York Yankees completed a four-game sweep of the Orioles at Camden Yards and improved their lead in the American League East to 10 games.

Manny Alexander, Ripken's heir apparent for five seasons, started at shortstop last night. Johnson indicated Alexander, who once went 25 days without appearing in the field this season, would be given ample opportunity at shortstop.

"I wasn't certain it was going to happen this fast," Ripken said, "but Davey seemed pretty adamant about it. I was told this is a temporary situation and they're going to evaluate Manny Alexander as the shortstop.

"I've had a few months to get used to the idea. I don't take it as criticism that I can't play shortstop any better than I have or I can't hit any better than I have the last couple of months."

Johnson said: "This is a very hard thing to do, because we all know Cal is the heart and soul of this team."

Johnson said he wouldn't have considered making a switch if the Orioles were leading the division by 10 games, rather than 10 games behind. But the Orioles, with a weak farm system and little depth on their major-league roster, have few options for changes; Alexander is one of those options.

For years, Alexander has waited for a chance that didn't come until last night, and although he had several good seasons in the minors and has performed well in winter ball and spring training, nobody in the organization can say for sure if he's a major-league shortstop. "We need to find that out," Johnson said. "We don't want to leave any stone unturned as we try to turn this into a championship ballclub."

Ripken's move to third base means B. J. Surhoff will switch from third base to the outfield, and Johnson's hope is Surhoff will augment the offensive production of the outfield.

About two hours before last night's game, Ripken ran out to third to take grounders and a mob of cameras tracked his every move. Third base coach Sam Perlozzo walked behind Ripken, to refresh the veteran's memory on bunt and cutoff plays. "What, are you trying to get on television?" Ripken joked.

Public address announcer Rex Barney called out the Orioles lineup before the game, and the crowd roared at Ripken's name. Alexander's name appeared on the scoreboard -- and his position was listed incorrectly. Manny Alexander, third base. The crowd booed.

Toronto Blue Jays leadoff hitter Otis Nixon challenged Ripken immediately, trying to bunt the second pitch. He failed twice to get a bunt down, striking out, and then the second hitter, Tomas Perez, tried to bunt the first pitch.

Ripken smiled, looked into the Toronto dugout and gestured to Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, mimicking him as he gave signs. Gaston laughed and Ripken chuckled. "I looked at Cito and said, 'take off the bunt sign, would you,' " Ripken said. "I'd rather have had a two-hopper."

In the second inning, Ripken handled his first chance, diving toward the third base line and spearing a ball hit by Charlie O'Brien, then rising to one knee and throwing him out. Ripken received a standing ovation.

When Ripken broke into the majors in 1981, he was projected as a third baseman, and he played that position the first half of 1982. But Earl Weaver, then Orioles manager, needed a steady shortstop, and he switched Ripken.

In 1989, former Orioles manager Frank Robinson considered switching Ripken to third and putting Juan Bell at short. But Bell floundered, and Ripken moved back to short before the season began. Ripken continued to hold down the position through last season, as he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record.

Johnson took over as manager last fall, and Alexander had a terrific spring training, hitting .300 and injecting speed into the lineup. When Ripken struggled offensively and defensively the first six weeks of the season, Johnson raised the possibility of moving Ripken to third.

However, Ripken responded to that challenge by immediately going on a hot streak, hitting three homers May 28, the night that Johnson initially intended to make the change. Johnson backed off.

But in the aftermath of the Yankees' doubleheader sweep of the Orioles on Saturday, Johnson met Sunday with owner Peter Angelos and assistant general manager Kevin Malone to discuss possible changes -- general manager Pat Gillick participated by phone. They talked for more than an hour about moving Ripken to third. With the club struggling, inserting Alexander one of the few alternatives and the move inevitable anyway -- Ripken turns 36 next month -- Johnson ultimately decided to make the switch. Johnson told Ripken Sunday, and informed Alexander, Surhoff, pitcher Mike Mussina and infielder Bill Ripken in separate meetings yesterday.

Angelos said yesterday: "He's the manager, and it's his decision to make. The team relies on Cal Ripken and will continue to rely on him: He's the No. 1 Oriole. This is something that they felt needed to be explored, and they're doing it, with full support of ownership."

"He's been an All-Star shortstop, and he'll be an All-Star third baseman," Johnson said.

Ripken said: "It's different. A lot of people think it's easy to change positions. It's an adjustment. It's an adjustment I'm going to have to make.

"I'm going to look at it as a challenge, and try to do the best I can."

Cal Ripken's new streak, as the Orioles third baseman, had begun.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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