Wrestling with shadow

Orioles: The team is searching for a new identity in its first spring camp without Cal Ripken since 1980.

February 21, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Preparing to take the field yesterday for the first full-squad workout of spring training, the Orioles agreed the time had come to move forward. The challenge was doing so within the all-encompassing shadow cast by a baseball legend. Such tricky footing usually requires better lighting.

Not since 1980 had Cal Ripken been absent from an Orioles camp, but his retirement last October assured that their team never again would look quite the same. That included the inner sanctum of the clubhouse, where the year's first shift had taken place a week before the exhibition opener.

Shortstop Mike Bordick and first baseman David Segui have inched closer to the corner once occupied by Ripken, moves that didn't go unnoticed by either player.

"It's not a good sign when we all move down," Segui said. "Are they doing this by age?"

Glancing toward the wall, Bordick said, "That's the edge of the cliff right there."

Jeff Conine has inherited the sacred ground at the end of the row, which comes with the television's remote control and a mountain of memories.

"It's a space," Conine said. "It was his locker, but it was a space that needed to be filled, or I'd be somewhere else. I'd be outside."

The mood becomes a little more serious when thoughts turn to a season without Ripken, to a team without its identity. To an organization trying to find its way without its most trusted guide.

"I don't know exactly how to describe it other than there's such an aura around him," Bordick said. "When he stepped in the clubhouse, you realized this was Orioles baseball and how important he was to it. Just looking down here, you expect him to be in this corner, and when we go back to Baltimore, in that corner."

Said Conine: "Of course, it's going to be different. I was fortunate to be able to play with Cal for three years. When you do, you realize the impact he has not only on this team, but Baltimore and all of baseball. So it's going to be weird not having him here.

"He's retired, he's gone. You've got to move on. You've got to get another identity going with this team and move in the right direction toward going to the World Series again. It's just the next chapter, hopefully."

Turning the page is done somewhat reluctantly. Manager Mike Hargrove is counting on his veterans to use a steady hand. The first roll call came yesterday, with Hargrove identifying Conine, Bordick and Marty Cordova - the left fielder signed as a free agent - as capable leaders.

"In some respects, I'm looking forward to it; in other respects I'm not," said Hargrove, whose youth movement no longer includes concessions to Ripken or fans wanting one last glimpse of him.

"I really enjoyed being around Cal. I enjoyed him being on my ballclub. But at times it was a distraction for the ballclub and the players, although they never said that. I'm looking forward to getting on to the business of rebuilding this. I wouldn't trade anything in the world for my experience with Cal. He's one of a kind. But it's time to move on. I guess that's why I haven't thought as much about it as probably most people would think."

Perhaps nobody has dwelled on it more than bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, a part of the organization since long before Ripken's ascension to the majors in 1981. His roots reach down through layers of faceless players from long-forgotten Orioles teams, wrapping around a Hall of Fame third baseman who left a similar hole in lineups and hearts.

"You're going to miss 21 years of excellence. When you have a young ballclub like this, there's no way you can tell me you won't miss a guy like Cal and his presence in the clubhouse," Hendricks said.

"I remember when Brooks [Robinson] was here, and then he was gone. I kept looking around for him the following spring. I said, `Well, he'll show up.' It took a while for me to realize that he really wouldn't be here. I haven't started that yet with Cal, but I will."

Tony Batista is fully aware that Ripken won't be here - the group of reporters staking out his locker yesterday provided a pretty good clue. An occasional replacement at third base last season after being signed off waivers in June, Batista was subjected to rude treatment on the road each time his name appeared in the lineup. The crowds at Camden Yards were friendlier but unable to disguise their general lack of interest in him.

"I can't imagine that there would be any more pressure on him starting this season than there was last year when he played instead of Cal," Hargrove said. "I mean, this guy got booed because he was in the lineup. There can't be any more pressure, and I thought he handled it well, a lot better than I would have.

"Anaheim was probably the worst, and Tampa. It was noticeable when it happened and kind of surprising. It wasn't Tony's fault."

Batista, apparently unmarked by the experience and undaunted by what lies ahead, said: "Last year is over. I'll try to do the best I can for myself, for the team, for my family. I'm happy to be with this team, but nobody's going to replace Cal. I'm just going to be another player on this team and go forward."

That's the direction the Orioles are pointed toward. Whether they move along easily, or at all, could help to shape the season. Maybe even a franchise.

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