He may not be close `family,' but Martinez says it's relative

March 23, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jim Palmer huddled with his newest Orioles TV broadcast partner yesterday. With the clock ticking toward opening day, Buck Martinez leaned over and listened closely.

"Good thing I'm used to being a quick study," said Martinez, who showed up for the Orioles' 8-1 Grapefruit League loss to the Marlins.

The former catcher, whose long career with the Toronto Blue Jays was capped by a two-year stint as manager, has indeed developed a knack for getting up to speed -- fast. All those ESPN games have turned him into one of baseball's most high-profile broadcasters ... which is either terrific for Baltimore or not, depending on which Internet chat room you visit.

Martinez knows the knock that some Orioles faithful hold against him.

"I'm an outsider. But I'm not, really. I have deep ties to the organization," Martinez said, reeling off names of Orioles managers, general managers and players he has connected with over the last 30 years: Frank Robinson, George Bamberger, Don Baylor.

"I'm pretty deeply rooted in Orioles baseball," Martinez said.

That's important. The Orioles under Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie are determined to restore the best aspects of "The Oriole Way." Likewise, the Orioles have been eager to officially link the organization to the biggest name in franchise history: Ripken.

This spring, the Orioles were close to getting a Ripken back in the fold. Instead, Billy Ripken lost his bid for the job as the Orioles' TV color analyst to Martinez when Comcast announced the hire Friday.

You can almost hear the groans from the deepest, darkest parts of Dundalk: "Hey, Buck Martinez isn't an Oriole! We want Billy!"

It echoes that rancorous day when the team tabbed Rick Cerone for broadcast duties, a hire that fanned the flames of Baltimore's special version of outsider-itis.

"Having grown up in Baltimore, it's unbelievable how parochial it can be sometimes," said Bill Stetka, the Orioles' director of public relations.

"People were calling up, screaming, `But Cerone's a Yankee! How could you hire a Yankee?' It's very nice to have an ex-Oriole in the booth, but then again, how many Orioles grow up and are raised on Orioles baseball?"

In this case, there was some merit in entertaining the idea of putting a former Oriole -- especially Bill Ripken -- in the booth for the Orioles.

"Billy with his teaching skills and his sense of humor could have been good. His knowledge of the Orioles and his ability to communicate it would have been real strengths," Stetka said.

Ripken Baseball spokesman John Maroon said yesterday that Ripken had been very interested.

"With Buck, you get a guy with years of experience. With Bill, what you would have gotten was incredible personality that would enhance any broadcast," Maroon said.

"Billy's schedule this summer is booked with the events at Aberdeen [home of the A-League IronBirds] and camps. Plus, Billy and his wife just had their fourth child, Jack, so things work out for a reason."

The Orioles still hope to get one or both of the Ripkens in the booth for occasional Sunday sessions. However, the decision on the color analyst was ultimately Comcast's to make. Clearly, with a known quantity like Martinez available for 55 or 60 games, Comcast came down on the side of serious experience and big-time national reputation.

"I think with me doing ESPN games, I'm going to be able to bring a different perspective to the booth," Martinez said.

"It's not that much different from Palmer. He's an Oriole, but he's really a national figure, as well, with his work on ABC and as a national broadcaster."

Still, the decision comes at the expense of getting Billy Ripken in the Orioles' fold, passing by a chance to cement a more serious business relationship with the Ripken clan. In the 1 1/2 years since Cal Ripken has retired, the Orioles have looked for ways to officially link the franchise to its greatest star.

"We want Cal to be involved. We want both of them to be involved and we're looking at opportunities for the Orioles and Ripken Baseball to work on shared marketing," Stetka said.

In other words, it's high time for the two sides to find a way to cross-pollinate their businesses.

Last fall, team owner Peter Angelos attempted to enlist Cal Ripken in discussions about some kind of high-profile position at the top of the organization. The inquiry came before Syd Thrift's dismissal and before Angelos hired Beattie and Flanagan to split GM duties and it faltered because Ripken is only interested in a high-impact position.

Cal then briefly flirted with the idea of throwing his hat into the ring for the GM vacancy. However, his commitment to Ripken Baseball precluded him from being a viable candidate.

Now the Orioles and Ripkens find another opportunity that didn't seem the right one to officially reconnect them. That's too bad, except that it allows a polished broadcaster like Martinez to land here and lend his insight.

"The Orioles were really the epitome of baseball," Martinez said.

"Like any great organization in baseball, there is a common foundation; players who grew up together. I think Jim and Mike are trying to create that again."

Sounds like Martinez is well-versed in "The Oriole Way."

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