Extra pop in new Orioles' bats adds bounce to Cal Ripken's step

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The northern chill that descended on Twin Lakes Park yesterday sent the snowbirds home to change out of their shorts, but it did nothing to cool the boyish enthusiasm of Cal Ripken on the Baltimore Orioles' first day of full-squad workouts.

He bounced around the field, acting every bit the 20-year-old rookie who showed up in camp 10 years ago hoping to prove he could be a major-league player. At one point, he paused to consider what veteran Dwight Evans might think of such behavior and later admitted to a twinge of embarrassment, but he could not contain himself.

"I was as bouncy and jumpy as a kid," he said, "but that's good. I think people notice that I like to have this uniform on."

This year in particular. The Orioles are coming off a fifth-place finish in 1990. They also are coming off a productive off-season during which Evans was signed as a free agent and power-hitting Glenn Davis was acquired from the Houston Astros. Ripken will not have to feel alone at the heart of the batting order anymore.

"I'm excited about our offense," Ripken said. "You can't help but be more excited about it. You add a Glenn Davis, then add Moose [Randy Milligan] and Evans. There just aren't as many ifs as there were last year.

"You know that Glenn Davis is going to have certain numbers. Dwight Evans is going to have certain numbers. Moose has established himself as a hitter. I'm going to have certain numbers. Then you have guys coming into their own, and there are all kinds of possibilities."

If all goes well, Ripken won't even have to be master of ceremonies anymore.

He was the center of attention last year. First because of the iron-man streak. Then it was his major-league-record streak of 95 errorless games by a shortstop. He was the biggest name on a largely anonymous club, but he won't be so alone in the spotlight if Davis and Evans swing the bat the way they have in the past. The constant media scrutiny -- especially as it related to baseball history's second-longest consecutive-games streak -- became particularly burdensome, but it should be diffused this year.

Perhaps more important, Ripken doesn't figure to be left unprotected in the lineup, where it was easy to pitch around him the past few years.

"When I came into this ballclub, in '82, '83, '84 and '85, I was part of an experienced, good offensive lineup," Ripken said. "We didn't lead the league in runs, but we had a good lineup that had guys like Ken Singleton, Eddie [Murray], Al Bumbry hitting leadoff and Dan Ford. As we were going through the rebuilding stage, I was the only one with experience and somewhat of a track record. That does affect your place in the lineup. People can choose to pitch around you."

There was evidence of that in Ripken's declining batting average, but he continued to be one of the steadiest run producers in the American League. He hit 21 homers and drove in 84 runs last year, but batted .250 -- his lowest average in his 13 professional seasons.

"When your lineup becomes a force to be reckoned with, they have to deal with the whole lineup," he said. "When your offense if working well as a unit, there is a potential to win in the first five innings. You can't pitch around people and put people on base or you'll be in danger of getting blown out.

"They might still do that late in the game, but you're going to haveimproved opportunities for the first three at-bats of the game and limited opportunity in only one."

Ripken knows all about limited opportunities. Last year's club did not have a true leadoff man, and the guy who spent much of the season in the cleanup spot (Mickey Tettleton) set a major-league record for strikeouts by a switch-hitter.

"It's been a learning experience, because you have to deal with the cards that you're given," Ripken said. "You take the stand that if they're not going to pitch to you, then you'll take walks. Then you go through a period where you know you're not going to get good pitches to hit, so you expand the strike zone.

"What I've learned is that there is a difference between total opportunities and real opportunities. If a guy is throwing you a changeup and you know that guy doesn't even have a changeup, you know you aren't going to get anything and you have to leave it for the next guy. It's still a team sport. You have to play collectively. You can't play alone."

He remains the most popular player in an Orioles uniform, but his offensive struggles during the first half of last season brought the boo birds out. He ended up with representative numbers, but occasionally bore the brunt of the post-Orioles '89 "Why not?" depression that came with the club's fifth-place finish last year.

"It might have happened a few times," he said, "but when you've played in front of a lot of people for a long time, you don't really hear it. I know I've been booed from time to time. People come looking for entertainment. It's a response to not being entertained. I try to put myself in their position because I consider myself to be an Orioles fan. They've seen you when you're in first or second every year, and now you're in a rebuilding period. There is a certain amount of patience, but they want to get back to those days."

This might be the team that takes them back, but Ripken is not making any comparisons with the pennant contenders past. He (and everyone else) had great expectations last year, and they were not fulfilled.

Even the off-season reconstruction was painful. Outfielder Steve Finley, one of the three players traded for Davis, was at Ripken's house when he was notified of the deal.

"It was kind of sad," Ripken remembers. "I had become friends with Steve. He had really begun to develop as a player. The same goes for [pitchers] Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling. They were up-and-comers. They could really grow.

"Then you look at Glenn Davis and think, 'Hey, it's pretty good to have Glenn Davis in the lineup. Then you deal with what you have. It's great to have Glenn. It's great to have Moose and Evans. You've got a chance to have a real good offensive team."

Davis blew a giant hole in the Orioles' salary structure. Ripken used to be the highest-paid player, but he makes almost $1 million less than a newcomer who never has gotten a hit for the club. It is the kind of thing that causes turmoil in other clubhouses, but Ripken and agent Ron Shapiro have voiced no complaints.

"I disagree with it being some kind of honor [to be the highest-paid player]," Ripken said. "I honestly don't put a lot of importance on it. I've always looked at baseball as if it had two parts. On the field is my job, and then there's the business side. It's a big business, so you get somebody good to handle the business side of it and you trust him to handle it.

"I know some people look at someone and immediately think salary. I look at everyone on the field as being equal. When you look at salary, it creates a ranking situation that is not appropriate."

If salary is not important, then what is? Is Ripken chasing the ghost of Lou Gehrig or an elusive Gold Glove? He would say nay to both. He chases ground balls, and last year caught a higher percentage of them than any other shortstop in history.

There are no newsworthy milestones to chase this year, so he and the Orioles can pursue a division title in peace.

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