O's intend no disrespect in weighing Ripken move

On Baseball

November 03, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Ernie Banks started his career as a shortstop and finished as a first baseman. Rabbit Maranville moved from shortstop to second base. An All-Star shortstop, Joe Cronin switched to third base, and so did Pee Wee Reese.

They are all Hall of Famers, and they changed positions at the end of their careers. When Los Angeles Dodgers manager Walter Alston moved Reese, he wasn't trying to embarrass him or push him out; heck, he probably would've preferred that Reese remain forever as one of the greatest shortstops of all time.

But with the inevitable concessions to time and age, that's not possible, and it's not possible for Cal Ripken to remain as the Orioles' shortstop forever. He is 36 and in the twilight of his career.

General manager Pat Gillick is not trying to humiliate Ripken or rush him into retirement. He is trying to build a club that contends for a championship every year, as he did in Toronto, and apparently Gillick and those around him have decided the Orioles will be better off with Ripken at third base.

There are a whole lot of folks around baseball who agree with this assessment -- managers, coaches, players on other teams, and scouts -- the consensus being that Ripken still has excellent hands and a good first step to his left, but poor range, a slow release and poor throwing arm when he moves to his right.

It's the same thing that National League observers saw in Ozzie Smith in the final years of his career. Having the ability to make the play in the hole is part of what separates good shortstops from mediocre or poor shortstops.

If the Orioles sign Mike Bordick and switch Ripken to third, it won't be because they don't respect Ripken. It will be because they think they'll be better off with a short/third combination of Bordick and Ripken rather than Ripken and Todd Zeile -- just as they decided a combination of Ripken and Zeile was better than Manny Alexander at short and Ripken at third.

Twice during the 1996 season, Orioles manager Davey Johnson discussed moving Ripken to third. Johnson decided against the change in May, because the team and Ripken started playing better. In July, Johnson made the switch, albeit temporarily, after the Orioles, playing horribly, were swept by the New York Yankees in a four-game series.

"I'm not sure I understood either time," Ripken said recently. "Was it an evaluation of Manny? Or was it an opportunity to move me off short? Was it me? I don't know? It's not clear.

"You would think if there was a directional change, I would be informed. I'm not saying it needs my approval. Obviously, they don't. But I think I would be informed. It was hard to take all the comments and piece them together and figure out what was going on."

It really isn't that hard to figure out. If the Orioles had won the World Series and Ripken had played great at shortstop, he would have remained there. Getting numerous chances in the Cleveland series on balls up the middle, his strength, Ripken looked terrific. Challenged in the New York series on balls to his right, his weakness, he looked terrible, and so the Orioles are looking to make a change.

Ripken should be informed of a directional change at the point when the acquisition of a new shortstop is imminent. But as he said himself, club officials don't need his approval, and frankly, they shouldn't seek it. Gillick takes his orders from owner Peter Angelos. Johnson takes his orders from Gillick. And Ripken takes his orders from Johnson.

There's an old saying about lawyers -- he who represents himself has a fool for a client -- that also applies to ballplayers, because they cannot possibly assess their circumstances objectively, especially someone who cares as much as Ripken does.

The club has shown ample respect for Ripken during the past couple of years, demonstrated by the simple fact that he's been placed in the lineup every single day. Johnson moved him up and down in the lineup according to when he was hitting well or poorly, batting him as high as third.

In fact, it is apparent staff members deferred to Ripken, sometimes against their gut instincts. Johnson repeatedly lamented the fact that Alexander didn't occasionally start at shortstop early in the season to keep him in playing shape. Gillick and former pitching coach Pat Dobson have both stated since the end of the season that they thought Ripken tired in the final weeks of the season. "I thought that, at the end of the season, the number of games wore him down," Gillick said.

The reason Alexander never played and Ripken wasn't given a day off, of course, is his consecutive-games streak, which has reached 2,316. The Orioles clearly deferred to Ripken in this, against their better judgments.

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