O's groom Conine as Ripken's backup

1st baseman/outfielder adds to resume in bid to get his bat in lineup

February 22, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A concept that first reached him as a January rumor on the Internet and gained credence via whispers from FanFest evolved into reality yesterday. Jeff Conine, a career first baseman and left fielder, began a transition as Cal Ripken's understudy.

The announcement was as understated as Conine taking two-hop ground balls off the fungo of coach Sam Perlozzo. With Ripken beside him at third base, Conine showed an aptitude for the throw to second base. Two balls bit him. Master and pupil spoke. A graceful beginning.

Within the same sentence Conine called the experience ahead of him "exciting a challenge" and described himself as somewhat nervous. Two months ago, Conine never could have envisioned himself participating in a time-share, no matter how minimal, with Ripken.

"Not a clue," he said.

Manager Mike Hargrove approached Conine last weekend about a desire to groom him as Ripken's backup. With Ripken still rehabilitating from September back surgery and only six months shy of turning 40, Hargrove has projected the perennial All-Star playing as few as five games a week this season. Meanwhile, reports on 26-year-old prospect Ryan Minor are not enthusiastic. Minor did not help his case by abstaining from the Venezuelan Winter League.

Last week Hargrove estimated Ripken would start roughly half of this spring's exhibitions. Yesterday, Hargrove said most of Conine's playing time would come at his new position, though not eliminating time in the outfield and at first base.

"I don't want him to ignore the other positions so that he's no longer proficient," Hargrove said. "But I think he needs to spend the bulk of his time taking ground balls at third base, getting in game situations at third base so we can get an accurate read on whether he can play the position if we need him."

Hargrove also conceded yesterday that Ripken may play some first base this season.

"I don't plan on playing Cal there regularly," Hargrove said. "I haven't even talked to Cal about playing first base. But I'm sure if we ask him about that, he can play without a hitch."

Conine's move is unusual for several reasons. His only prior major-league exposure to the position came before the 1995 season with the Florida Marlins and in a disastrous improvisational move in Seattle last season.

The first experiment ended when the Marlins acquired former MVP third baseman Terry Pendleton; the latter failed after Conine was asked to take the position in the bottom of the ninth inning in a tie game vs. the Mariners on Aug. 1.

The cameo performance came with no forewarning. Conine grabbed an outfielder's glove, assumed the position and looked into the dugout for help. His first and only chance came on a bunt, which he charged and hurriedly threw wide of first base to fuel a game-winning rally.

"I knew [the bunt] was coming to me. I fielded the ball cleanly and had plenty of time but I rushed it. If I was familiar with the situation, I take my time and make a better throw," Conine said.

At Conine's age (33), many players are on the verge of a move from third to first. Instead, he becomes one of the few to attempt a move in the opposite direction.

A championship racquetball player long recognized as a gifted defensive player, Conine is believed physically able to handle the position. It will be more difficult to learn situations, tendencies and positioning at his new post.

"Baseball is a game of seeing," Conine said. "You can take batting practice all you want from a coach, but when you get in a game it's totally different."

Conine, who hit .291 last season with 13 home runs and 75 RBIs in 444 at-bats, is embracing the switch on several levels. He values his versatility, which featured him taking two balls out of the Camden Yards left-field bleachers in the same game last season as well as manning first base during Will Clark's two trips to the disabled list. He also covets at-bats, which might otherwise be hard to find with Clark, designated hitter Harold Baines and B. J. Surhoff occupying the roles he could fill.

The Orioles aren't expecting a Gold Glove. Making the routine plays for six or seven innings before yielding to a defensive specialist in late innings would be enough.

"You play a position long enough and you react to the situations because of habit. You don't have to think a whole lot about what you're doing," Hargrove said. "To begin with, Jeff is a good baseball player and understands it. But there will be a lot of mental effort going into the position."

The position's physical challenges will be the longer throw to first base and charging bunts. Upon his return from back surgery, Ripken cited the off-balance, contorted crossfire to first as his most difficult challenge. Conine will be asked to learn the unnatural move during his career's midlife.

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