Minor isn't ready to take a seat

Ryan Minor: With his major league dreams faded, the former Oriole, 31, keeps his career alive in the independent leagues.

Baseball

June 17, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

LANCASTER, Pa. - The towering figure emerges from the bare-bones clubhouse, passing the cement slabs and tarp rolls that some day will be a batting cage.

He lumbers to the home dugout, sits down and peers out at the green grass and brick facade of Clipper Magazine Stadium. There's only a number on the back of his jersey; he's another nameless member of the Lancaster Barnstormers, a first-year franchise in the independent Atlantic League.

In one way, this fresh, beautiful ballpark a few miles from the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish country is a perfect setting for his comeback story.

In another, the whole scene is torture.

What first sets Ryan Minor apart from most Atlantic Leaguers is his size - he's 6 feet 7 and 250 pounds. Then it's his resume.

Seven years ago, he was the Orioles' top prospect. He had size, power, good hands and a rocket arm. He also had the misfortune of being labeled the heir apparent at third base to a baseball legend.

Now he's a 31-year-old first/third baseman playing for $3,000 a month in a league that markets family entertainment ahead of baseball excellence. He's living in a host family's basement, three hours from his wife. He's hoping to get noticed in baseball's most respected independent league, one that once had Rickey Henderson and Ruben Sierra and now showcases John Rocker, among others.

"Hopefully, there is a chance for me to be picked up this year," Minor said. "It is still early, I guess, but every day gets a little later in the season. It is tough to sit here every day, but you have to do it."

Minor is only 75 miles from Baltimore, yet a world removed from Camden Yards.

A cruel path

For most who have dreamed of baseball stardom, there is that moment of clarity.

Whether it comes in Little League, American Legion, high school or beyond, eventually baseball proves too cruel.

Another path must be discovered.

For Minor, it is not that easy.

His life is sports; it has been since he was a child.

He was named by USA Today as one of the nation's 25 best high school players as a senior and was drafted by the Orioles. Instead, he went to the University of Oklahoma, where he starred in baseball and basketball.

His sophomore year, he helped lead the Sooners to a national baseball championship. His junior year, he was the Big Eight Conference's Player of the Year in basketball.

Drafted in both sports after his senior season, he was cut by the Philadelphia 76ers in training camp. He played a season in the Continental Basketball Association before the Orioles persuaded him to concentrate on baseball.

It looked like a brilliant move. In 1997, his first full season of pro baseball, Minor was named the organization's Player of the Year. By September 1998, he had made the jump from Double-A to the majors at the age of 24.

"At that point, he hadn't played a tremendous amount of baseball," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo. "But with the skills he had, we expected him to develop and blossom into a great player."

It's difficult to pinpoint why his career went south so rapidly, how Minor went from Baseball America's No. 1 Orioles prospect in 1998 to little more than a trivia question answer a few years later.

"You just wonder what went wrong," Minor said. "But the bottom line comes down to opportunities and producing when you get them, and I didn't do that in Baltimore at all."

Subbing for Ripken

Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller won't forget Sept. 20, 1998, the night the greatest three-word quote in club history was uttered.

"Does he know?"

Shortly before an ESPN Sunday night game against the New York Yankees, Cal Ripken decided he had had enough. After 2,632 consecutive games played, Ripken chose that evening to end his streak, and he informed Miller, his manager at the time.

Five minutes before the team went out on the field, Miller grabbed Minor, who had made his major league debut a week earlier.

"I ran into him in the hallway and I said, `Ryan, you are going to play [for Ripken],'" Miller remembered with a smile. "And he said, `Does he know?' That's exactly what he said."

Despite reports that he looked "like a deer in headlights," Minor said he wasn't scared when told the news. His question, he said, was an attempt to make light of the situation - one that ultimately would define his career. And maybe, indirectly, lead to its demise.

"I actually kind of felt like I was on a pedestal with Cal that night. It was kind of fun being in the press conference with him," Minor said. "That was kind of neat. I will always remember that."

With that start, Minor became Ripken's replacement, both literally and figuratively. But Ripken wasn't ready to retire. And first base was clogged with veterans such as Rafael Palmeiro, then Will Clark and Jeff Conine.

"I think it probably set him back, because he didn't get enough playing time," Miller said. "If he had went with a second-division or expansion club, where they'd give him two months to get set in, he probably would have done a lot better."

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