Minor aim: book seat on O's bus

Baseball: Cal Ripken's one-time understudy comes to terms with reality that he probably will begin the season in Rochester, but that hasn't tempered his resolve.

March 08, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Ryan Minor knows the drill. When the Orioles head north to Jupiter this morning, there will be a seat for him on the team bus. "I don't think I've missed a trip in four years," he says, singing a prospect's song.

Minor is participating in his fourth camp with the Orioles. The novelty has long worn off his label as Cal Ripken's heir at third base. Two years ago, he turned camp upside down for more than two weeks as he ripped into major-league pitching at Vero Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Myers. Manager Ray Miller was so enthused he suggested the front office decree Minor receive a look at shortstop when he was inevitably optioned.

That seems like forever ago.

"I know I'm not supposed to make this team. The fact is, somebody has to get hurt for me to have a chance to go north. I've come to terms with that. That's just reality," Minor says.

Less than four years have passed since general manager Pat Gillick took a chanceon the All-Big Eight basketball player by selecting him in the 33rd round of the 1996 amateur draft. Minor's first love was basketball, which he starred in at the University of Oklahoma. However, it was unrequited when the Philadelphia 76ers cut him after drafting him in the second round.

Rated one of the top 25 prep baseball players before he accepted a basketball scholarship with the Sooners, Minor decided to accept the Orioles' offer to become the understudy to a legend.

Minor's been stuck on the bus ever since.

"Ryan Minor will play in the minor leagues -- for this team," vice president of player development Syd Thrift said before last night's exhibition against the New York Mets. "He will play in the major leagues for 10 years, at least. He has that kind of ability."

But for now, the Orioles aren't prepared to back up Thrift's confidence with a roster spot.

When the Orioles needed to groom an understudy for Ripken at third, they looked instead to veteran first baseman-outfielder Jeff Conine, who had never played the position in the major leagues.

"I had heard over the winter that's what their plan was. Then I got here and saw that's what was happening. I wasn't happy about it, but it's out of my control. I have to make the best of it," Minor said.

Minor knows his task well. At the prospect's advanced age of 26, he must construct a convincing season at Triple-A Rochester, something he couldn't do last year when he batted an uneven .256 with 21 home runs and 67 RBIs in 101 games. The numbers were good enough for him to be named to the International League All-Star team but found lacking when he received major-league exposure.

Gaping holes were found in Minor's swing, resulting in a .194 average, three home runs and only 10 RBIs in 124 at-bats. He struck out in more than one-third of his 124 at-bats, giving him 162 strikeouts in 507 combined at-bats.

Minor's stock further eroded this winter when he failed to appear in the Venezuelan Winter League for a complex number of reasons. Former Orioles coach John Stearns was supposed to manage the team but was fired before Minor could report. Devastating floods subsequently swept the country and the newlywed found it more prudent to remain in Oklahoma with his wife.

"I know a lot of people in the organization weren't thrilled with my winter. But that was my decision and there were reasons for it. They can either accept them or not," he says.

Minor insists his winter was not a professional washout, and has used his brief exposure this spring to validate his stance. Hitting coach Terry Crowley helped Minor shorten his unwieldy swing near the end of last season and the third baseman has retained the method this spring. He produced an opposite-field home run off star prospect Matt Riley in last week's intrasquad game, then hit another Sunday against the Marlins.

So far Minor, who did not play last night, has emerged as the camp's offensive surprise, hitting .625 in eight at-bats with a double, home run and three RBIs. He has failed to make contact only once. While the first week of exhibitions is hardly a barometer for anything long-term, it has confirmed a positive vibe.

Not all of Minor's adjustments are mechanical. He insists he has lessened the pressure he places on himself. "I think I fell into the mind-set where I was overly concerned with home runs and not content with just driving the ball. That causes you to fall into bad habits and it hurt my consistency. Working with Crow, I think I've finally gotten beyond that. It's enough to hit the ball hard."

"I think for a long time Ryan pressured himself because of his age," says Thrift. "He heard the clock ticking. If he didn't, I'm sure there were plenty of others to remind him."

The bus leaves this morning around 9 a.m. Ryan Minor will grab a window seat and enjoy the view while trying to keep his gaze straight ahead.

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