Shadow gone, Batista illuminated

Ripken's successor, Orioles' only All-Star, is a star in his own right

July 09, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

MILWAUKEE - Cal Ripken has retired, and the Orioles still have an All-Star third baseman with a contagious smile and an iron will to play every single game.

Tony Batista wasn't sure just where he stood last season, when the Orioles plucked him off the waiver wire and told him he would have the everyday third baseman's job as soon as Ripken's farewell tour ended.

Now, Batista understands.

He is the Orioles' lone selection for tonight's All-Star Game at Miller Park, and once again he has replaced Ripken, who made 19 straight All-Star appearances, started 17 times and won the game's Most Valuable Player award twice.

"Nobody's going to replace Cal," Batista said. "He's going to be in our minds forever. In Baltimore's mind, all the fans, he's going to be right there. I just play my game. I'm just thankful for the chance they've given to me. And I'm lucky. My first year playing third base for Baltimore, I'm an All-Star."

Batista has been everything the Orioles expected June 25, 2001, when they secured the remainder of his $16 million, four-year contract with a $20,000 waiver claim. Everything and more.

After making the All-Star team with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000, the year he hit 41 home runs, Batista was batting just .207 with 13 home runs in 72 games. Toronto was trying to sneak him through waivers to send him to Triple-A.

Ripken had announced his retirement just days earlier, and the Orioles were talking about trading a starting pitcher, such as Sidney Ponson, to find his replacement. Syd Thrift, the team's vice president for baseball operations, convinced owner Peter Angelos that Batista was well worth the investment.

"I had no doubts about him ever," Thrift said. "I had no reservations because I kept saying the one thing I know about him is he's a good infielder. He can play shortstop or third base."

Batista, 28, has been a fixture at third base this season, starting all 85 games. Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, who turns 37 this month, is in the final year of his contract and has said he will contemplate retirement after the season. Baseball sources say that if the Orioles can't bring Bordick back, there's a strong chance they would move Batista to shortstop and look for a new third baseman.

In the meantime, the Orioles are pleased having both of them, side by side.

Batista is batting .269 with 19 home runs and 53 RBIs, providing a huge boost to a lineup that has spent the past three weeks without No. 3 hitter David Segui and No. 4 hitter Jeff Conine.

"Offensively, Tony's been outstanding," Bordick said. "Obviously, we were hoping he would put up those numbers, and he has."

Defensively, Batista has been streaky. He played the first 25 games without making an error, and another 23-game errorless streak ended Sunday. In a 36-game span between those two stretches, he committed 11 errors.

Good or bad, Batista provides a little infield entertainment every game, when he performs his first-inning ritual of looking heavenward, lifting both arms into the air and slowly dropping them in two semicircles. Batista said he is giving thanks to God at that moment, asking blessings for every player on the field.

"He's an All-Star in the clubhouse with his leadership style and the positive influence he has on all the players," Thrift said. "The one thing about Tony is he's the same all the time. He's never up, and he's never down; he's the same. That's a real quality I wish I had."

American League manager Joe Torre picked Batista as a reserve, and the New York Yankees skipper knows firsthand how unfazed the new Orioles third baseman has been playing in Ripken's shadow.

On Opening Day at Camden Yards, with Ripken watching from his suite and the Yankees leading the Orioles 1-0, Batista hit a grand slam off Roger Clemens, leading to a 10-3 victory.

Four innings into the season, the first Orioles team in the post-Ripken era had its definitive moment. After finishing 63-98 last season, they entered the All-Star break at 42-43.

Last weekend, Batista acknowledged how big that swing was for him.

"It opened the door," Batista said. "It was like showing, `I'm here. I want to do good for this team. I want you to give me a chance.' "

As Batista said this, he was sitting a few seats down from Ripken's old locker at The Ballpark in Arlington (Texas). Batista and every other Texas Rangers opponent knows where Ripken's locker was because the Rangers have preserved it behind glass - with his spikes, jersey, undershirt and sunglasses sitting right where he left them after his final game there July 26, 2001.

Batista said he knows he's filling a special man's place.

"Last year was a little difficult," he said. "In my mind, I think it was too early to figure out the move and the situation with Cal here and everything. When this team claimed me, I was thinking, `Where am I going to play?' because Cal was here.

"But they called me into the office and cleared my mind. They told me, `Cal's going to be playing, but he's going to be playing only this year. So next year, you're going to be playing every day.'

"Now, I think that kind of move last year happened for a reason."

Orioles schedule

Today ALL-STAR @ Milw., 8 p.m. 45, 5

Wed. OFF

Thu. A'S 7:05 p.m. CSN

Fri. A'S 7:05 p.m. CSN

Sat. A'S 7:05 p.m. 13, 50

Sun. A'S 1:35 p.m. 13, 50

Mon. MARINERS 7:05 p.m. CSN

Radio: All games on WBAL (1090 AM)

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