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Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. talks about the 2014 team

By Dan Connolly

The Baltimore Sun

5:51 PM EDT, March 12, 2014

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Like most interested observers, Cal Ripken Jr. doesn’t know exactly what the Orioles will do with the left side of their infield next year.

This much he’s sure of, though: At least for 2014, the Orioles appear set with Gold Glovers J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado at shortstop and third base, respectively, the two positions that Ripken occupied for 21 Hall-of-Fame seasons in Baltimore.

“You have one of the best shortstops in the league playing shortstop for you every day, being productive,” Ripken said. “And then you have a young kid next to him that has proved out that he can be considered one of the best third basemen in the league. So you have a great left side of the infield. So who wouldn’t want that?”

Ripken, who was at Ed Smith Stadium on Wednesday to promote and sign his latest baseball novel for young readers, “Squeeze Play,” which he co-wrote with former Baltimore Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd, stopped short of saying that the Orioles should sign pending free agent Hardy to a long-term extension.

But the greatest shortstop in club history didn’t hesitate when he was asked what he thought of Hardy’s skills at the position.

“The results have been obvious. He does it without a lot of fanfare. He does it consistently. He makes all of the plays and is in the right spot all the time. And [it’s not] unnoticed to me,” said Ripken, who played catch with Hardy, and then threw the ceremonial first pitch to him before the Orioles played the Philadelphia Phillies. “Being able to see him in an Orioles uniform gives you a chance to see him a little bit more every day, and you fully start to appreciate what his presence means.”

Hardy, 31, is heading into his fourth full season with the Orioles. If he plays for the club through the end of the 2015 season, he’d be the first shortstop to play five full consecutive seasons at the position since Ripken from 1982 to 1996 (Mike Bordick spent six seasons at shortstop for the Orioles, but he was traded in the middle of 2000 season and then returned as a free agent in the offseason).

As much as he admires Hardy, Ripken admits he is also curious about what Machado could do at shortstop, which the 21-year-old had played his entire life until switching to third base in the major leagues in 2012.

“If J.J. goes down to injury or J.J. ends up moving on, it’s interesting to look at the skill set that Manny Machado brings and to project him at the position. But I’m not in the inner meetings of [Orioles manager] Buck Showalter and [executive vice president] Dan Duquette,” Ripken said. “I’m saying it from a shortstop’s perspective, seeing a skill set that Manny brings and the strength of his arm.

“At some point, it would be interesting to see him apply those types of skills to the position of shortstop. But if you had a choice of having those two guys for five, six more years, that’s a pretty good left side of the infield.”

Ripken, who works as a baseball analyst among other business endeavors, said he’s pretty impressed with what the Orioles did in the offseason and the product the club will have on the field in 2014.

“It’s kind of funny to me, being around Baltimore, that the expectations have risen the last couple of years about this team. In the early parts [of the offseason], everyone was saying we hadn’t made any moves, kind of stood pat,” he said. “There’s an expectation now that there’s a foregone conclusion you’re a competitive playoff team, and that you need to improve your team each and every year like everybody else in your division is doing.”

Ripken was part of a 1996 playoff club that set the franchise record for runs in a season (949, compared to 745 last year). With the addition of slugger Nelson Cruz to an already potent lineup, this version of the Orioles potentially could challenge that group.

“We had people throughout the lineup that had power [in 1996]. And being able to score a run without having someone in scoring position is a pretty valuable asset to have,” Ripken said. “This lineup here [has] a lot of guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, a lot of guys who are good hitters … So, potentially this offense has the potential to be one of the better offenses in the league and score a lot of runs.”

The key, as always, is how the club pitches in the American League East.

“What wins, ultimately, is your ERA and your pitching,” Ripken said. “The potential for this team to have a deep pitching staff is there as well.”

Ripken spent a few minutes in the clubhouse before the game talking with Showalter, players and several of his old teammates, who are now coaches in the Orioles’ system.

“I get the best of both worlds. I get a glimpse of what my life used to be like and also stay busy and do some of the things that I like to do as well,” Ripken said. “I feel very comfortable going into Buck’s clubhouse. I sat down with [Alan Mills, Scott McGregor and Mike Bordick]. In many ways, it feels like old times, which is really cool, and I enjoy that.”

Showalter said Ripken is always welcome to stop by. He said he’d love to have the Hall of Famer work more with the team in the spring, but Ripken’s hectic schedule makes that difficult.

“He is so busy. We tried to get him down here as much as he can, but he is the type of guy, if he isn’t able to commit for a long period of time, he’d rather not. He doesn’t just want to come in and out as some figurehead. He has so much to offer,” Showalter said. “When we get a chance to be around him, it’s an honor. The players like having him around.”

Inevitably, Ripken was questioned about his interest in returning to Major League Baseball in some capacity. He made headlines — albeit, inadvertently — last year when he admitted he was intrigued by the vacant Washington Nationals managerial job that was eventually filled by Matt Williams.

“The safe answer is to say, I’m very happy doing what I’m doing right now because anything else I say can be pulled in different directions. That would be the safe answer.” Ripken said. “I’ve had success in a couple of business models from the kids’ models that I’m looking to duplicate around the country, which requires time and planning.

“But there is a side of me that would like to be able to apply what you know at this level. I have no plans [to return soon]. I have no business strategy. I have no professional baseball strategy whatsoever, but there’s a side of me that feels that way.”

He then paused and joked: “Does that leave the door open?”

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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Transcript of Cal Ripken Jr.'s comments to the media

On returning to Orioles spring training, albeit briefly: “I get the best of both worlds. I get a glimpse of what my life used to be like, and also stay busy and do some of the things that I like to do as well. I feel very comfortable going into Buck’s clubhouse. I sat down with [Alan Mills, Scott McGregor and Mike Bordick]. In many ways, it feels like old times, which is really cool, and I enjoy that. Spring training time is a very busy time of the year for me in some of the other businesses that I have going on, so it’s not always as easy to schedule a block of time.”

On what he thinks of Hardy as a shortstop: “The results have been obvious. He does it without a lot of fanfare. He does it consistently. He makes all of the plays and is in the right spot all the time. And it doesn’t going to go unnoticed to me. I remember the first time I saw him at any level was when he was with Milwaukee. ... But being able to see him in an Orioles uniform gives you a chance to see him a little bit more every day, and you fully start to appreciate what his presence means in the middle of that lineup, in the middle of that field. He is a very good shortstop.”

On Hardy being around for several more years if he receives an extension, and the development of Machado: “You have one of the best shortstops in the league playing shortstop for you every day, being productive. And then you have a young kid next to him that has proved that he can be considered one of the best third basemen in the league. So you have a great left side of the infield. So who wouldn’t want that? Now, having said that, if J.J. goes down to injury or J.J. ends up moving on, it’s interesting to look at the skills set that Manny Machado brings. And to project him at the position. But I’m not in the inner meetings of Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette and kind of thinking about what they are doing. I’m saying it from a shortstop’s perspective, seeing a skillset that Manny brings and the strength of his arm. At some point, it would be interesting to see him apply those types of skills to the position of shortstop. But if you had a choice of having those two guys for five, six more years, that’s a pretty good left side of the infield.”

On his thoughts about this team: “I haven’t really, to be honest, looked at them from a level of evaluation. I know the nucleus of the club, and I know the additions that they’ve made. It’s kind of funny to me, being around Baltimore, that the expectations have risen the last couple of years about this team. In the early parts [of the offseason], everyone was saying we hadn’t made any moves, kind of stood pat to improve the team, so there’s an expectation now that there’s a foregone conclusion you’re a competitive playoff team and that you need to improve your team each and every year like everybody else in your division is doing. So, to see the flurry of moves, [like Ubaldo] Jimenez. ... That’s an interesting arm and an interesting addition to the staff because the potential from now is really interesting. And to add a big bat to the lineup is really interesting.”

On whether this offense is similar to the ones he played on in 1996 and 1997: “We had people throughout the lineup that had power. And being able to score a run without having someone in scoring position is a pretty valuable asset to have. This lineup here [has] a lot of guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, a lot of guys who are good hitters. You have the nucleus of everyday, two-way players that is pretty good. And you add [Nelson] Cruz to that lineup and the evolution of [Chris] Davis as a premier power hitter in the league positions you pretty well. And Manny Machado is just going to get better and better and start to learn his skill set and his power. Because he does possess power as you’ve seen many times. So, potentially this offense has the potential to be one of the better offenses in the league and score a lot of runs. What wins ultimately is your ERA and your pitching. So the potential for this team, too, to have a deep pitching staff is there as well.”