Past point of proving one, team scores with this move

July 16, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

When Davey Johnson first raised the issue of moving Cal Ripken to third base earlier this season, he had unadvertised motives.

He wanted to demonstrate to all corners of the clubhouse that the team's agenda was more important than any player's agenda -- an important point on a team prone to the disease of me.

But there were no unspoken intentions when Johnson finally pulled the trigger on moving Ripken to third last night at Camden Yards.

When he made Manny Alexander the first Oriole other than Ripken to start at shortstop since June 30, 1982, Johnson was just attempting to put some life back into his lifeless, disappointing, underachieving ballclub.

A manager isn't worried about proving a point when a $48 million team is collapsing around him.

Was it a good move? Yes. And not just because the Orioles did finally show some life last night, rallying to beat the Blue Jays in the ninth inning on home runs by Bobby Bonilla and Chris Hoiles.

The move had nothing to do with all that, but it's a good move because it has almost no potential downside, particularly now that the club has so little to lose after breaking down against the Yankees last weekend.

Ripken alone guarantees the absence of any downside. It's not as though Johnson is moving Juan Bell to a new position and hoping for the best.

Ripken is the consummate pro and a peerless fielder. He will play a fabulous third. His first play last night, after 14 years at shortstop, was a highlight-reel job.

Whether Alexander can play shortstop is the real issue, of course; his untapped potential is the reason the move was made. But if it turns out Alexander can't handle the job, Ripken can just return to shortstop. He knows the territory.

It's not as though the team's pennant chances might get ruined in all this.

The team has no pennant chances.

Meanwhile, with Ripken at third instead of B. J. Surhoff, Johnson is free to use the versatile Surhoff as an outfielder, catcher, first baseman or DH.

He can help immediately in left, a position from which the Orioles have gotten little production.

It'll all come back around to Alexander, though. His performance will make or break the move.

You could argue that he didn't deserve the chance given the way he whined while rotting on the bench, but the Orioles had few other ways to shake up the team.

The front office is going to have trouble trading for impact players with so little to offer in return.

It makes no sense to give up too much now, anyway, with the season on such a shaky foundation.

The Orioles made that mistake last year and gave up Alex Ochoa. Please, not again.

All things considered, adding Alexander to the mix was one of the few easy moves Johnson could make, even if it took a stern constitution. It amounts to trading for a new player without making a trade. Alexander had only 37 at-bats before last night.

He was pretty awful last night, striking out in his first two at-bats and sending his only throw wide of first base on a tough chance by the mound. (He wasn't charged with an error.)

But the idea is not to judge him on one game. That he is a talented prospect was obvious in spring training, where he was one of the Orioles' best players.

At this point, there is no reason not to see if he can duplicate that performance in real games -- as long as Ripken can handle playing third, which he can, as he proved last night.

Those who had insisted that it wouldn't be a big deal were wrong.

It was weird, almost surreal, to scan the field last night and find him somewhere other than at shortstop.

It also was strange to find someone else in his place at shortstop; at first, poor Alexander looked as though he had shrunk to the size of a 10-year-old standing out there.

Batting first for the Blue Jays, Otis Nixon attempted to bunt on the first, second and fourth pitches, intent on testing Ripken immediately. He was so determined that he bunted with two strikes and fouled the pitch for a strikeout.

When the Jays' second batter, Tomas Perez, also squared around to bunt, Ripken jokingly yelled at Jays manager Cito Gaston to call off the bunt sign. Gaston burst out laughing.

"I wanted them to bunt," Hoiles said after the game. "It doesn't matter where Cal is playing, I want them to hit it to Cal."

No one hit it to him until the third inning, when the Jays' Charlie O'Brien smashed a ball down the third base line.

Ripken dived headlong to his right, grabbed the ball, rose and steadied on one knee and threw across the infield to first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.

"I would have preferred a two-hopper," Ripken said later.

It was a stunning play, a magical moment, and the Camden Yards crowd rose to give Ripken a standing ovation. Ripken spit into his glove, squinted at the next batter and kicked the dirt in front of him.

He had always said over the years that he wanted to be like Brooks Robinson.

His time had come.

Pub Date: 7/16/96

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