Ripken's role: Time for Plan B?

August 05, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Cal Ripken will have missed 46 of the Orioles' first 117 games if he comes off the disabled list on schedule.

He faces the possibility of postseason back surgery.

What he can offer in 2000, no one knows.

The Orioles made the right call in exercising Ripken's $6.3 million option for next season. But that doesn't mean they're obligated to again pencil him in as their regular third baseman.

Incredible as this sounds, the Iron Man no longer is reliable, at least not in terms of his availability. Surgery could return him to his old, 162-game self. Or, surgery could further muddle his future.

History instructs us never to count out Ripken, but he turns 39 later this month, and he's on the disabled list for the second time this season after going more than 16 years without missing a game.

At the very least, the Orioles will need a contingency plan at third next season, one that goes beyond promoting Ryan Minor from Triple-A Rochester.

Frankly, they might need to start exploring other third-base alternatives, with the idea of making Ripken a part-time first baseman and designated hitter.

Such a move would reduce the club's reliance on Ripken. It also could clear a spot for Minor or enable the Orioles to find a new center fielder, with Brady Anderson moving to left and B. J. Surhoff to third base.

Only one question matters:

Which is the best possible team?

For starters, the Orioles must decide if Minor can hit at this level, and these next two weeks could weigh heavily in their decision.

If Minor can convince club officials that he's ready -- and right now, he faces a decidedly uphill battle -- then he should start next season at third base.

If not, the Orioles should strongly consider moving Surhoff to third, easing the glut of long-term contracts in their outfield while improving their overall defense.

They can't trade Anderson. They can't trade Albert Belle. They don't want to trade Surhoff. But they need to upgrade in center, and the entire organization knows it.

That's why it makes so much sense to return the versatile Surhoff to the infield. He probably would offer greater range than Ripken, if not the same soft hands and powerful arm. Anderson, meanwhile, would be just as good in left -- before Surhoff, he was considered one of the AL's best at that position.

What would become of Ripken?

He could alternate with Will Clark or Calvin Pickering at first base and Harold Baines at DH. He could face selected right-handers as well as lefties. And he would be a threat off the bench.

The Orioles could even attempt to trade Clark and make Ripken their everyday first baseman, with Pickering and/or a Jeff Conine-type available to replace him, if necessary.

Ripken probably wouldn't relish such a change. He surely prefers third to first, and like most everyday players, might find it difficult to adapt to a DH's role.

But the Orioles need to move forward, once and for all.

The trick, of course, is to build toward the future while still showing Ripken the proper respect. It is a delicate issue that might grow increasingly difficult in the months ahead.

Let's say Ripken undergoes surgery the day after the season ends with the idea of reporting to spring training in top condition.

Should the Orioles wait to see how he recovers?

Or should they make other plans?

Whatever their decision, it is not one that can be put off until spring. Ripken, a stickler for preparation, will want to know his routine, especially if he's changing positions. And assuming the Orioles hire a new manager, the last thing he will need is Ripken's status in question entering spring training.

No, the Orioles will need to make a determination in the off-season, at a time when they might not have all the information they need on Ripken's condition.

Again, it's dangerous to underestimate Ripken. His career appeared in jeopardy the first time he went on the DL, but he rallied to move 32 hits from 3,000 and one homer from 400. When healthy, he has looked as good as ever, if not better.

It would be preposterous to suggest that anyone batting .335 should retire. It would be equally preposterous for the Orioles to ignore the signals that Ripken's body is sending.

Maybe Ripken will undergo surgery and play a wonderful third base next season, but he's in a race against time now, and his team is about to enter another transition.

He is no longer the Iron Man.

The Orioles need to understand that. So does Cal Ripken.

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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