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2nd rate Orioles must quit playing games and resolve second base situation despite uncertainty with Ripkens


SARASOTA, Fla. -- If the Orioles want a new second baseman, get on with it. Bill Ripken still looms as the Opening Day starter, but the club keeps flirting with outside options, afraid to stay the course, and equally afraid to disrupt it.

The paralysis, of course, results from the fear of angering big brother Cal, who remains unsigned beyond this season. Both Ripkens, however, understand change is part of the game. They scoff at the notion that Cal can pick his own teammates.

"That seems a little bit drastic of a statement," Bill said yesterday over breakfast at Twin Lakes Park. "I don't think that's the way baseball works. I don't think that's the way Junior works."

So get on with it. Atlanta's Jeff Treadway is the latest second baseman to draw the Orioles' interest. A trade won't happen if the Braves keep demanding top shortstop prospect Manny Alexander. But clearly, the Orioles are dissatisfied at second base.

Juan Samuel, Delino DeShields and Kurt Stillwell are among the other possibilities they've explored this winter. They surely would have made the change by now, if not for the uncertainty surrounding Cal -- an uncertainty for which they have only themselves to blame.

The fact is, they're scared, for no valid reason. Cal signed his last contract in July, 1988 -- three months after his father was fired as manager. As much as he loves his brother, he knows how childish he'd appear bolting his hometown team over a new double-play partner.

Naturally, Cal believes Bill should be the Orioles' second baseman. Yet his analysis of the situation was typically evenhanded. He acknowledged, "It's not my place to make decisions and evaluate the club." Then he added, "I personally think Billy is the best second baseman I've played with."

"His value sometimes is not so easily defined," Cal said. "In his role, defense doesn't get a lot of notoriety. But pitchers appreciate it -- it's conducive to winning. Offensively, he's asked to bunt, hit-and-run, those kinds of things. They don't show up necessarily.

"I've been in the baseball business. I grew up in baseball. I know the hard-core realities -- trades, and whatever else happens. It's always a possibility. You have to accept and deal with what happens.

"But," Cal said, smiling, "I'd like to keep my second baseman."

The Orioles would too, if only he'd stay healthy and provide more punch. Bill is indeed an excellent fielder, but he batted only .216 last season with no home runs and 14 RBIs. Ankle, back and rib cage injuries limited him to 287 at-bats.

It seems he gets hurt every year -- witness his four trips to the disabled list the past three seasons. Bill hates excuses, but conceded injuries hampered his '91 production. As he put it, "If you don't have a good back and a good rib cage, it's tough swinging."

Clearly, the Orioles could do worse at second -- they could try Tim Hulett or Juan Bell, who helped Bill form the worst offensive position in baseball last season. They also could do better, and that's why they keep pursuing players like Treadway.

No one will ever confuse Treadway with Ryne Sandberg, but he's a lefthanded hitter who has increased his average every season since his rookie year (.252, .277, .283, .320). The Braves are willing to trade him to clear a spot for World Series hero Mark Lemke, a superior defensive player.

The Orioles, however, consider Alexander too high a price, even though he's at least two years away from Baltimore, even though he plays the same position as the man with the second longest consecutive-games streak in major-league history.

Alexander, 20, eventually might be traded anyway, but at a time when he can bring more in return. He's expected to play at Double A this season, while a lesser shortstop prospect, Ricky Gutierrez, is at Triple A. Maybe the Orioles should just convert one to second base.

Bill Ripken batted .308 after joining the club in the second half of 1987. He led the Orioles with a .291 average in '90. He said, "I believe if you can do anything once, you should be able to do it again." But, because of three sub-par years, his career mark is .247.

The funny thing is, the Orioles would be delighted with that average, if only Bill could reach it consistently. Instead, they profess to be searching for the "real" Bill Ripken. "I want to give him an opportunity to see what he can do," manager John Oates said. "I want to find out."

That's the party line, and it's spouted only because of Bill's last name. The Orioles should either get a new second baseman, or stop trying. The Ripkens are big boys. They could stomach a change, if only the Orioles showed the guts to make one.

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