Next season, it's matter of when, where Future: Cal Ripken's playing time and perhaps even his position will be part of the Orioles' adjustments for 1999.

September 27, 1998|By JOE STRAUSS | JOE STRAUSS,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- Until Cal Ripken scratched himself from last Sunday's lineup, the assumption among many fans and teammates was that the Iron Man would simply play on forever. If a bulging disk, sprained ankles or Davey Johnson couldn't bench him, then what was left?

No player within the clubhouse had ever stepped onto the Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards fields as an Oriole without Ripken there. Sure, his position might have changed, but never his presence.

Yet as the Orioles look ahead to 1999, the issue no longer is whether he will sit, but how often. The issue isn't whether he will play, but where.

Ripken seemed to remove any doubt about his intentions when he said last week that he plans to play -- and play regularly -- next season. Left unsaid is whether he will remain at third base or move to first and whether he will remain a fixture in the middle of the batting order.

No one within the organization has dared suggest a second position switch in three years to Ripken. Miller said he won't encourage moving Ripken across the diamond -- "not unless we sign some super third baseman" -- but can't speak for the rest of the organization. Given the club's current flux, projecting anything is folly.

"I have no idea what free agents we're going to go after. I don't know how many of these guys will be back," the manager said.

Miller projects Ripken will sit 10 to 15 times next season, usually missing day games after night games or sidestepping dominant right-handers. No suggestion has been made about platooning him.

"We've talked about this whole thing," said Miller, "and this is the part Cal doesn't agree with. He says: 'What good is one day going to be for me?' But I think it's a mental thing more than physical. I said to him as a friend that the days I've seen him after an off day, he has so much more life."

Ripken has left 28 games early this season, six more than last year. Critics have cited his diminished range and lagging production numbers, implying that The Streak was culpable. Ripken long denied the suggestion, though Miller estimates occasional rest might improve the Iron Man's performance by 10 percent.

"I still feel I have a lot of baseball left in me," Ripken said. "Obviously as you get a little older, you don't have the resilience you had early on. But I'm going to give it my best effort, and I think I'm going to be even more motivated than I've ever been."

Last season's return to third was an uncomfortable one for Ripken. Footwork that served him well at shortstop betrayed him at the quicker-paced position. What some believed was a problem of age was actually one of technique.

At short, Ripken could step toward the plate, brake and spread his feet during a pitcher's delivery. At third, his height (6 feet 4) made the move cumbersome, frequently leaving him off balance against hard-hit balls. He made 15 errors in his first 90 games there last year, but only seven in his last 72. This season, he has committed only eight in 159 games and leads American League third basemen in fielding percentage. A third Gold Glove is a possibility.

"I think that's a good reflection of the progress he's made," said coach Sam Perlozzo. "Anything Cal does, he's going to do to the best of his ability. "With the exception of [Cleveland Indians shortstop] Omar Vizquel, Cal Ripken and Mike Bordick catch the ball as well as anyone in baseball. Sure, there are times he has looked slow. But he's 38. With a few exceptions, he's made all the plays."

Miller rates Ripken's arm "above average" and remains comfortable with him at third base. The spectacular play may now elude Ripken, but his consistency has been reassuring to Miller and Perlozzo.

"There was one time this year when he looked slow, but he made the proper adjustments and he's been fine since," said Perlozzo. "If he can get to it, he's going to catch it. And if he catches it, he's going to throw you out."

One by one, the political issues that surround Ripken have been addressed. In May, Miller dropped him to No. 7 in the batting order for the first time since his rookie season, and may seek to return him there next season, depending on how sweeping the team's off-season changes are.

"That was something I did earlier this season to get speed in front of him. Cal's a very experienced hitter, he's a good guy to hit and run with. He has excellent bat control," said Miller. "I don't know if protection is that important except higher in the order or if it really matters until late in the game. But depending on what we do during the off-season, I'd like to move him lower."

There exists no desire to move him out.

Faced with Sunday's historic decision, Miller could have inserted utility infielder Jeff Reboulet in Ripken's place but opted for prospect Ryan Minor. Miller's decision carried symbolic meaning; Minor is the long-range heir to the position.

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