O's make right call on Bordick

March 10, 1997|By John Eisenberg

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The mere mention of the Orioles possibly moving Cal Ripken to third base caused seemingly unending controversy in 1996, but the reality of it happening in 1997 is causing nary a peep.

What's up with that? Simple. Mike Bordick is the right replacement for Ripken at shortstop.

He is the only replacement, in fact, who could have made this delicate maneuver a go.

Ripken wouldn't have signed off on the idea so happily if the Orioles had tried to replace him with erratic Shawon Dunston, swaggering Kevin Elster or any of the other debatable options they considered last winter.

The skillful, hard-working Bordick is a replacement about whom Ripken can't complain.

The fuss of a year ago was the result of Ripken never signing off on the idea; with Manny Alexander as the only other option at shortstop, Ripken didn't buy the idea that the team was better off with him at third.

This year, he can't help but agree that the team is better off with him at third and Bordick at shortstop.

Even if Ripken still believes, at least privately, that he is the best man for the job, he certainly can see that he and Bordick will make the left side of the infield as formidable as any in baseball.

Yesterday morning, he sat in the Orioles' clubhouse and spoke glowingly of his replacement, who signed a three-year contract with the Orioles last December after spending six years with the Oakland A's.

"I've always appreciated Mike as one of the best shortstops in the league," Ripken said. "Being with him in spring training and seeing how hard he works and the type of person he is, my opinion isn't changed. He is a good quality shortstop."

He also is one who plays the game almost as intellectually as Ripken does, factoring in counts, weather conditions, pitchers and positioning. There is no better way to impress Ripken.

"We've started talking about the things we'll need to know playing alongside each other," Ripken said, "and it seems like he really approaches the game situationally, which I have always felt was a great advantage. I really like the way he thinks."

Ripken isn't the only observer Bordick has impressed in the first month of spring training. Bordick's hard-nosed, blue-collar style has impressed manager Davey Johnson, the coaches and the other players.

"He's great," Johnson said. "He's a gamer. He's talented. He works hard. He's just outstanding."

As good as Johnson expected?

"Better," Johnson said.

Bordick is always one of the first players to arrive at the clubhouse, and always one of the first on the field. Third base coach Sam Perlozzo has hit him hundreds of grounders in extra morning sessions.

"Great skills, great hands, great instincts for catching the ball," Perlozzo said. "I will hit him 100 balls and he will field 99 perfectly, bobble one a little and get mad at himself. You win with guys like that."

Bordick, 31, doesn't seek such praise or take comfort in it. He is the antithesis of the typical, attention- seeking modern player. With his small stature, buzz haircut, low-key personality and perpetually dirty uniform, he seems to have come from a simpler era.

"I'm not a high-profile guy," Bordick said. "I'm basically in awe of the idea of playing between Cal and Robbie [Alomar]."

He also is in awe of the attention he is receiving this spring as wave after wave of interviewers stop by his locker to ask him about replacing Ripken. Life with the A's wasn't like this.

"I think I have gotten more attention this year than in the rest of my career combined," he said.

The spotlight will only get hotter once the season begins. Inevitably, Bordick's performance will be measured against Ripken's high standard, set over the past 15 years. Bordick is bound to hear grumbles and boos when he makes mistakes. And he certainly won't hit with as much power as Ripken, or drive in as many runs.

"I knew what I was getting into," Bordick said, "and I knew it wouldn't always be easy. The only thing I can do is continue to take the approach I always have, which is that I need to prove myself every day. And play as consistently as possible."

Perlozzo said: "I really don't think it will be hard for him. He plays so hard and does the little things so well that the fans are bound to appreciate him. If you watch five games in a row, you'll love this kid."

But if there is one most important reason that the switch will go smoothly, it's that Ripken has signed off on it. He seems to be enjoying the challenge of moving to a new position.

"Physically, it's no problem," Ripken said. "Mentally, it's going to take a little time to get used to doing the little things differently, like playing bunts and cutoffs. But I have no doubt that it'll come."

It's the controversy that never happened, because the Orioles made the right call.

They picked the right guy.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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