Minor makes major jump, but hoops still hold heart

March 09, 1997|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He goes back to his hotel room every night, turns on the television and watches March Madness heating up on ESPN.

"Part of me still can't believe I'm not going to be doing that anymore," Ryan Minor said yesterday, sitting in the Orioles' dugout after a morning workout.

It's no wonder. He played basketball from his days as a grade-schooler in Oklahoma until a month ago, when the Orioles persuaded him to walk away from his Continental Basketball Association team and try baseball as a full-time career.

"I still feel like a basketball player," he said. "I still walk and talk like a basketball player."

He paused, then gave a small laugh.

"And when things aren't going well out here," he said, "I find myself asking, 'What in the world are you doing out here?' "

He knows the answer to that question: He is "out here" as a prospect with the Orioles because his basketball stock dropped from the time he was a first-team All-American as a junior forward at the University of Oklahoma two years ago, projected as a possible NBA lottery pick.

"I'm not sure what happened," said Minor, who is 6 feet 7 and 225 pounds. "I thought I played just as well as a senior. But it didn't work out."

Scouts wondered about his quickness and shooting range, and he slid all the way to the second round of the 1996 draft, long-shot territory. The Philadelphia 76ers picked him and then cut him last fall, and he wound up in the CBA with the Oklahoma City Cavalry.

From there, baseball looked a lot more interesting as a career choice.

It was a sport that he also had played in high school and college, so well that USA Today named him one of the nation's 25 best prospects four years ago.

The Orioles took a chance and picked him in the 33rd round of last year's draft, and the gamble paid off when his basketball fortunes waned.

"I always wondered how well I could do [in baseball] if I concentrated on it," Minor said.

He is about to find out. The contract he signed last month forbids him from returning to basketball for two years. He will start this season in Single-A, play winter ball and get as many as 1,400 at-bats in the next two years, or so the Orioles hope.

"The decision [to play baseball] effectively means I'm finished with basketball," Minor said.

"Even if I wanted to come back after two years, that's really too long to be away from the game. And I'm going to start lifting weights and adding upper-body strength, which isn't what you want in basketball.

"There's no doubt about it, I'm a baseball player now."

His contract stipulated that he spend time in the Orioles' major-league camp, giving the front office a long look at him. He probably will be sent to the minor-league camp soon, but not without leaving an impression.

His long, lean frame seems out of place on a diamond until he drops into a tight crouch and darts around, swooping up grounders with nary a glitch. His power is evident every time he steps into the batting cage.

"He's very exciting." said Kevin Malone, the Orioles' assistant general manager. "He's a special athlete. He has everything that it takes to make it: Power. Great hands. Agility. Athletic ability. I think he's going to be a tremendous defensive third baseman."

He also looks comfortable in camp, Malone said, as if he had been a major-leaguer for years.

"He already looks the part," Malone said. "It's probably a result of him playing such a high caliber of basketball. He's got that confidence."

He hasn't hit particularly well, which is no surprise; after hitting with metal bats in college, he still hasn't found a wooden bat that suits him.

"I'm just feeling my way," Minor said. "My first at-bat in an intrasquad game was against Mike Mussina. Welcome to the big leagues."

He makes it sound as if it were embarrassing, but Minor swung at Mussina's first pitch and lined a single.

"He's going to be a player," general manager Pat Gillick said. "An excellent player."

It's great news for an organization that is sorely lacking young talent.

The Orioles had drafted him four years earlier, when he was a high school senior. He chose to go to Oklahoma and play both sports.

"I thought I'd never play [pro] baseball after that," he said.

Guess again.

"They recruited me this time," Minor said. "Pat Gillick came to Oklahoma City and had breakfast with me one day. [Scouting director] Gary Nickels showed a lot of confidence in me. The whole organization did."

He has settled on the sport in which his height is a liability; few players that tall have made it in the majors. Minor just laughs that off.

"God gave me special gifts," he said. "A lot of people my size aren't agile or athletic. Cal [Ripken] is a big guy who is very athletic. It has never been a problem for me in baseball."

Switching sports physically wasn't a problem, but mentally? That's tough. The electric hum of March Madness on his television doesn't help.

"I played against a lot of those guys, including Maryland," he said. "We played them twice. Exree Hipp and Keith Booth guarded me. I had good games."

Is it hard to watch now, knowing you can't play anymore?

"Oh, man, I tell you," Minor said. "After all the things I've done in basketball, all the games, it's really tough just to stop cold.

"But I'm excited about baseball. I can't wait to get going. I've gone back and forth between two sports my whole life. It was a blessing, but I needed to pick one and stick with it. I'm glad I finally did."

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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