Ripken issue won't fade away

Inside the Orioles

Even with Iron Man's new part-time status, next five months tricky

Baseball

April 29, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Just because it was inevitable doesn't make the Orioles' concession last week that Cal Ripken is no longer an everyday player any less significant nor any less delicate.

What happens from here, however, is less certain.

Ripken has entered an unknown phase of a Hall of Fame career that will have its end just as assuredly as it has had so many unforgettable moments. Four times in the past two weeks he has watched an entire game from the bench while 27-year-old Mike Kinkade worked at third base. For the first time in his career, he must watch the wall each day to see if his name is on the lineup card.

The transition is difficult for any great player, be it a Mays, a Robinson or a Schmidt. But for someone whose identity is so tied to playing every day - for 2,632 straight games - the stage must be particularly odd, even lonely.

Tuesday's confirmation by Mike Hargrove neither reflected a recent decision nor a unilateral move by the manager. Since Ripken announced his intention to return on the final day of last season, the Orioles have considered how to fit him within a sweeping renovation unprecedented during the term of majority owner Peter Angelos. Shortly after Hargrove said Ripken would play "two to five times a week," both vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and Angelos voiced support.

The decision was known long enough within the organization for Ripken to have suspected an imminent announcement even before he met with Hargrove in St. Petersburg, Fla., eight days ago. A source familiar with the situation said Hargrove initially intended to tell Ripken in Detroit on Monday.

Angelos credited his "professionals" with the idea. Smart move. It is a difficult balance to avoid the appearance of pushing away an icon. Hargrove, meanwhile, refuses to call Ripken a part-time player "in the true sense of it," but says, "If you took out a dictionary, the definition might fit."

Ripken was slugging .182 with a .182 on-base percentage at the time of the move. His premature return from a fractured rib suffered in a pickup basketball game before spring training put him into a statistical hole that will likely require weeks to rehabilitate his percentage statistics. But in the Orioles' broader view, it is more vital to determine whether Kinkade can bat .280 with power in 350-400 at-bats than whether Ripken can duplicate his combined .300 from the previous two seasons.

Therein lies the potential conflict between two sincere parties. Ripken believes production should dictate the lineup. It is how he explained The Streak. Yet Hargrove has described this season as "a waste" if the club does not make a read on those players it imported the past 10 months.

"There's a bigger plan, a master plan," Ripken said after Wednesday's win, and before he sat out Thursday's loss. "We're in a rebuilding process, but we're also trying to win right now, too. Those decisions are made by those who guide the team.

"As a player, your best security ... your best defense is to go out and make the most out of every opportunity, so when the manager sits in his room and fills out his lineup, he wants to put you in. That's the way it's been in baseball forever."

But not this team, not this year.

There remain other questions associated with this move too hot to touch:

It is no secret Kinkade will be closely scrutinized as a rookie soon to turn 28 without minor-league options. But at 40, how much is Ripken's play scrutinized?

Even if Hargrove's lineup reversal April 19 could be attributed to his forgetting that a left-hander was starting that day, will Ripken's time be cut more on the road than at home, where attendance had already dropped about 15 percent before last week's admission?

More than one organization member has termed the issue "a bomb." The Orioles only postponed the issue last November when they signed Ripken to a one-year extension at his 2000 salary ($6.3 million) rather than attempt to negotiate an incentive-laden deal more suggestive of a player whose playing time would be uncertain. Nor was the threat of Ripken's filing for free agency for the first time in his Hall of Fame career inconsequential.

Ripken says the recent move will not hasten his decision about retirement. But by making its position known early and firmly, the club has tacitly expressed a view that the organizational icon is incongruous with its near future.

This much is clear: When the Orioles contend again, Ripken will not be part of it. That is not cruel, merely fact. That said, Ripken's grounding in the game would have to allow him to see at least a germ of inevitability to the move.

A generation ago, the Orioles traded All-Star third baseman Doug DeCinces to facilitate Ripken's taking over at third base. Ripken responded by being named American League Rookie of the Year in 1982. Kinkade is no Ripken, but neither are these Orioles any longer a team with a veteran foundation.

Hargrove and Thrift say the move was not performance-related, though Ripken's average stood below .160 entering last week's series against the Tigers. (In his only game in the series, Ripken homered to provide the difference in a 6-4 win while grabbing the team RBI lead with nine.)

Ripken himself seemed unconvinced, saying he would have been more surprised if he had been benched "if I was 20-for-40." Indeed, if the tack was determined as long ago as spring training, letting Ripken know during his least productive healthy month in years appears a strange coincidence.

The dance will last another five months between partners who are not experienced at its steps. There is enough time for both to learn and time enough for either to do harm.

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