Groomed Minor looking just fine Solid spring adds to tag as heir to Ripken at 3rd

March 08, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- It wasn't meant to be a battlefield commission, but it was about as close as any minor-league player will get this spring.

Three steps out of the first base dugout following the Orioles' 8-5 exhibition win over the Montreal Expos, Ryan Minor was pulled aside by manager Ray Miller. Minor's contribution, an RBI double to cap the Orioles' four-run ninth inning, added further weight to a spring increasingly described with superlatives. Miller's message was intended for nothing less than a player of promise.

Said Miller to Minor: "You're very professional and you know what's going on. A lot of people are going to try to get you to predict things and set sights for yourself.

"Just continue along the same line. You're a very good ballplayer and if you go about it the same way you have been, it's all going to take care of itself in a short time. Just don't get too excited about success because you should expect it."

Minor won't come north with the Orioles. He likely won't arrive there all season. But in two short weeks the former All-America basketball player at Oklahoma has shown why he should be considered the legitimate heir to Cal Ripken at third base.

After his talk with Minor, Miller said he saw no reason why the club's Minor League Player of the Year couldn't begin this year at Triple-A Rochester. One year after hitting .307 with 24 home runs and 97 RBIs at Single-A Delmarva, such a jump would be extremely rare. But Minor is a rare player.

A monster at Single-A, Minor, now 24, is chronologically ready for Triple-A. However, he is only two years removed from a professional basketball career that included a brief look from the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted him in the second round, and a stint in the Continental Basketball Association.

The Orioles took him no earlier than the 33rd round of the 1996 draft because they knew basketball was his first love. Despite being 6 feet 7, Minor displays the agility of a much smaller man. He has played third base and first base. Twice he has fully extended to snare scalded line drives. Miller describes his hands as so soft "the ball doesn't make a noise when it hits his glove."

"You really don't want to get too gay in spring training because a lot of people have good springs," said Miller, rarely prone to overstatement. "But I like the fact that I've seen him handle the ball to end an inning with a couple of men on base when it's a hard-hit ball and you knock it down then pick it up and throw the batter out at first. Those are the kind of balls a lot of people panic on."

No stranger to adulation on a large stage, the former Big Eight Player of the Year speaks with a veteran's reserve. Basketball, a more comfortable game, jilted him. Reminded of Miller's advice, Minor adds more perspective.

"I've been through this a lot, especially in basketball," he said. "I had so much success there that I know you can't get too excited about something like this. I know we're here to work on things. I am happy with the way I'm playing. But even though I'm having success, I can't get overly confident."

Basketball has eased its grip on him, though March Madness sometimes brings about lapses of nostalgia. "I'm not the type of person to dwell on things," he said. "I always thought when I walked away from it, it would be tough. But playing baseball has taken my mind off it for the most part. I haven't had the chance to think about it too much. I really miss it when I see it on TV. Until then, I'm just here."

Well, not exactly. Minor crushed a titanic home run off Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star right-hander Ramon Martinez on Friday. He already owns four extra-base hits in 16 at-bats and has shown an ability to expand his strike zone in appropriate situations.

When Miller's endorsement is mentioned, Minor alludes to the "hearsay" that suggests he skip Double-A, saying, "I know it's a big, big jump. After the year I had last year, there's no way I would expect to go there. But if the opportunity is there, there's no way I'm going to say I'd rather start somewhere else. But if I had to go to Double-A or go back to Single-A, I can deal with that because I'm just trying to improve. I just want to play every day and experience some better competition."

He has played basketball at Ripken's home in Reisterstown and at times this spring he has played across the same diamond from him. Receiving perhaps the strongest endorsement of all, Minor has felt acceptance.

"[Ripken]'s not the kind of guy who's going to turn you down even though I just played A ball last year," Minor said of the iron man. "People say guys in the big leagues don't have time for young guys, but that's not the case with this club. That's a great thing for us. We're here trying to establish ourselves and prove something."

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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