Ripken's back where he belongs

April 10, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

It's about time Cal Ripken stopped dogging it, got his butt out of the training room and started earning his money. (That, dear reader, was a joke. A tongue-in-cheek opening. A real back-slapper -- check that, rib-tickler).

Seriously, who ever thought it would be news for Ripken to be in the Orioles' lineup?

Such was the case last night, when the Iron Man started at third base after missing consecutive games for the first time since, oh, September 1981.

The game began in a light rain and 49-degree temperatures after a rain delay of 1 hour and 35 minutes.

Raw night. Slick field.

Not exactly ideal conditions for Ripken's return.

"You can't handpick the days when you're going to play," Ripken said before the Orioles' 7-4 loss to Toronto. "I'm healthy enough to play and I'm going to go to it."

As always, Ripken's determination was admirable. But he and the Orioles took a chance, perhaps even an unnecessary one.

Then again, it certainly appeared they made the right decision after Ripken drilled the first pitch he saw into the right-center field gap for an RBI double.

Ripken finished 1-for-4. He ran well, made a strong throw to first on his only chance and played all nine innings of a game that ended at 11: 57 p.m.

Let's just hope he doesn't wake up this morning stiffer than he was Opening Day. Let's just hope the worst of his back problems are over.

For now, the only significant effect of his injury is that it probably will buy time for rookie third baseman Willis Pipp -- er, Otanez.

A week ago, the Orioles probably would have traded Otanez if they had received a decent offer.

Now Otanez figures to stay with the team after second baseman Delino DeShields comes off the disabled list, and possibly beyond.

Crazy as this might sound, the Orioles need insurance for a player who just 7 1/2 months ago had appeared in a record 2,632 consecutive games.

Was Ripken's injury a one-time thing? Is it related to the herniated disk he suffered in '97? Will he start a day game after a night game today?

Those questions still need to be answered.

"I think you just take it as it comes. See what happens. Go out there and play the game and see how things react," Ripken said. "But I don't anticipate any setbacks."

That, of course, is what you would expect him to say at this point. But at least Otanez has emerged as a temporary -- if still unproven -- alternative.

Otanez went 3-for-8 with a double and his first major-league homer starting in place of Ripken the previous two games. He also looked better at third base than he did in spring training.

"He seems relaxed and serious about it," manager Ray Miller said. "His first hit, the double, was kind of like a check swing to right field. But after that, he swung the bat really well."

Otanez, who turns 26 in nine days, is out of minor-league options. The Orioles can only demote him if he clears waivers. And that's how they got him in the first place, claiming him from Seattle on Feb. 12, 1996.

Otanez likely would get claimed again coming off a 100-RBI season at Triple A. If the Orioles wanted to trade him -- just as they traded Danny Clyburn, another young player with a limited future in Baltimore -- those plans are now on hold.

The Orioles could play Jeff Reboulet at third if Ripken was hurt again. They could even move B.J. Surhoff to third and play Jeff Conine in left if the injury was serious. But Otanez presents another option.

A younger option, for those fans who might want to see such players after watching all those 26-and-under Blue Jays -- Shannon Stewart, Shawn Green, Alex Gonzalez and Kelvim Escobar -- dominate the Orioles last night.

Otanez's stock fell after he batted .182 in spring training, and the Orioles acquired Conine, a veteran right-handed hitter who plays many of the same positions.

Orioles general manager Frank Wren admitted that the trade for Conine created a "redundancy" with Otanez, but that was with Ripken healthy. Conine does not play third base.

From the beginning, it appeared that infielder Jesse Garcia would be demoted to clear a spot for DeShields. That move seems even more likely now, unless the Orioles put Reboulet (left heel) on the DL and keep Garcia.

Asked before last night's game if Otanez had improved his status, Miller replied, "I would think so."

How much he will play is anyone's guess. A healthy Ripken still figures to make at least 140 starts. But what if he is only available for say, 110?

The Orioles then would be in position to find out more about Otanez.

The ideal scenario is for Ripken to stay healthy, collect his 3,000th hit and 400th homer, help the Orioles back to the postseason. But it is far from the only scenario now.

Ripken used to make history ever time he was in the Orioles' lineup.

Last night, he made news.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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