This was supposed to be a glorious year for Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. The pressure from the Streak would be gone. He would be on a good team, one he wouldn't have to carry offensively or direct defensively on every play. Finally, he would have an opportunity to relax a little.
Now, however, with Baltimore manager Davey Johnson talking about moving him to third base, Ripken finds himself at the center of a controversy. The controversy is as much about control as anything. It is about management seizing command of a team on which the front office thinks the players have had too much say. The Orioles last played a postseason game in 1983, and their record since then is less than .500. General manager Pat Gillick, who like Johnson is in his first year with the Baltimore organization, has questioned whether the "nucleus of the team knows how to win." Gillick and Johnson believe that the Orioles were too relaxed last year—Baltimore had one of the deadest clubhouses in the majors—and they don't want any player feeling too comfortable. They don't want anything to be considered sacred, even Ripken's consecutive-game streak.
Ripken, 35, hasn't played third base in almost 14 years, but Gillick and Johnson believe the Orioles will be a better team with him at third, 25-year-old Manny Alexander—a lifetime .233 hitter in 118 major league games—at shortstop, the injured B.J. Surhoff moving from third base to rightfield and DH/outfielder Bobby Bonilla moving to another team. Baltimore has tried to deal Bonilla for pitching, but because of his salary ($4.5 million), his free-agent status after this season, his petulant attitude (he has spent most of the early season whining about his DH role) and his weak hitting (.231, with three home runs through Sunday), there have been no takers.
The proposed infield shift, which Johnson told reporters about on May 20, has left Ripken disappointed and confused. However, he will make the switch without complaint, because, as always, he will do anything to help the team.
Still, it's hard to see how this will help the Orioles. Even though he may have lost a step defensively and isn't throwing as well as he has in years past, Ripken is still a very good shortstop. He's much better than the erratic Alexander, who, says one teammate, "has no feel for the game." If Alex Rodriguez, the Mariners' 20-year-old phenom, were waiting to play shortstop in Baltimore, Ripken would run to third base, but Alexander is only slightly better equipped to succeed Ripken than two other failed challengers from the past, Jackie Gutierrez and Juan Bell. To try to ease the pressure on Alexander, the Orioles were most likely waiting for Tuesday's game in Seattle—a night contest on the West Coast—to make the switch. Yet if the experiment doesn't go well, it could last only as long as it takes Surhoff, who is eligible to come off the disabled list this Sunday, to get back into shape to play in the field.
Even if the move was worth trying, the timing was all wrong. At week's end Baltimore had won 11 of its last 15 games, running its record to 27-20, and closed to within a half game of the Yankees in the American League East. More than anything else, it was the timing that was confounding many Orioles last week. Said one, "A hundred percent of the players are against this, except Manny, because he wants to play." Second baseman Roberto Alomar, the league's best player this year, is unhappy about it, according to one teammate. "No comment," said Alomar, who signed a three-year free-agent deal in December so he could play next to Ripken. Why upset a guy who was hitting .401 through Sunday and tends to become moody when things don't go his way? And what about Surhoff, who signed with the Orioles in the off-season after nine years in Milwaukee? Before he sprained his ankle, he had hit 10 home runs and had 26 RBIs in 38 games. He was also playing surprisingly well at third.
"They won't be a better team if Ripken moves," says Angels coach Rick Burleson, a former shortstop. "He still has the best glove in the league. There's a lot more to playing shortstop than catching a ground ball. There are coverages, cutoffs, positioning, rundowns. He will be the first to know when it's time to move. And he should be the one who decides when it's time to move."
Gillick and Johnson believe that such decisions rest with the manager. And Johnson, who guided the Mets to a championship in 1986, is not afraid of controversy. He says that players sometimes perform better when on edge.
So Johnson is putting the Orioles on edge, rattling some cages, including Ripken's. Many Orioles turn to Ripken for advice. In the last two seasons he has occasionally called pitches from his shortstop position. Last year he persuaded then manager Phil Regan not to change the Orioles' bunt coverage plays, arguing that trying to make the adjustments during a strike-abbreviated spring training was not a good idea.
"All I can tell you is that whatever we do, it will be best for Cal, best for the team, best for everyone," Johnson, a Baltimore second baseman from 1965 to '72, said last week. Johnson wants to restore the Orioles' winning tradition, of which he was very much a part, by ensuring that his players perform with passion and are accountable to the manager. But by taking a bold stance in the Ripken matter, he risks losing the support of some of his players. If this move had to be made, it should have been accomplished in spring training. That would have given Ripken six weeks to relearn third base and Alexander a fair chance to succeed at shortstop.