Mac attack may leave Bill hungry for playing time


As incumbents go, Bill Ripken usually is safer than a Republican president. Think Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were weak challengers? How about Pete Stanicek and Juan Bell?

Now along comes Mark McLemore, playing the role of Bill Clinton, spotty history and all. He's finally cooling off, but to this point, he has run a textbook campaign on how to unseat a favorite son.

Will it happen? Probably not, but it's safe to say Ripken is being pushed at second base for the first time since replacing the dynamic duo of Alan Wiggins and Rick Burleson in the summer of 1987.

McLemore isn't Stanicek, who had so many muscle problems he made Glenn Davis look like Lou Gehrig. And he isn't Bell, who faced the unenviable task of learning to play second base in the major leagues.

No, he's simply a switch-hitter with speed on a team lacking in both departments. Manager Johnny Oates says he will continue playing both second basemen as long as they produce. Ripken opened the season as the clear No. 1.

Both are 27.

Both are shaky hitters.

Both are gritty, but frequently hurt.

Ripken missed yesterday's 5-2 loss to Chicago after suffering a bruised forehead on a hit-by-pitch the previous night. He also missed a game last month after bruising his shoulder in a collision with first baseman Randy Milligan.

McLemore, meanwhile, doesn't throw as well as he once did after undergoing two arm operations in 1989. He has spent a total of seven months on the disabled list the past five seasons -- nearly triple that of Ripken over the same span.

This isn't a showdown. It's a survival test.

"I feel I'm going to get at-bats, my games played," Ripken says. "I also feel he [McLemore] is going to get his. It's a little different feeling. But it's not that disconcerting."

Yet, little by little, Ripken's future with this team is starting to look bleak. How solid can it be, when he's being threatened by a player who was released by Cleveland and Houston in the past 18 months?

The Orioles no doubt are congratulating themselves for unearthing McLemore, whom they signed as a minor-league free agent last July. The fact is, they encouraged him to pursue other options over the winter, and were reluctant to take him back.

McLemore, however, figured this was his best opportunity. He accepted a standing offer to return from assistant general manager Doug Melvin, and became the last Oriole invited to spring training, a non-roster player wearing No. 67.

The rest is history: McLemore survived one political battle to beat out Bell, the last holdover from the Eddie Murray trade. Now he's taking on the ultimate insider, and already has drawn even in the only poll that matters, the one conducted by Oates.

It took only a month, even with Ripken's big brother Cal unsigned. Bill could be in trouble either way once that mess resolves. He'd be judged more realistically if Cal departs as a free agent. And he would no longer be such a touchy subject if Cal signs.

As if that's not bad enough for Bill, the Orioles suddenly are grooming a potential replacement at Rochester. His name is Ricky Gutierrez, and he's converting from shortstop to second base under the supervision of minor-league infield coach Rich Dauer.

Ironically, Gutierrez switched positions with Bell, whose transition to second came too late. Club officials obviously learned from that mistake, and they're watching Gutierrez closely. A second-round draft pick in 1988, he now ranks among International League bat leaders.

Gutierrez, however, doesn't turn 22 until later this month. Even if the Orioles wanted to make a change, he probably wouldn't be ready at the start of next season. Barring a trade, Ripken's only short-term threat will be McLemore. The competition is doing both good.

McLemore currently is outhitting Ripken by 75 points (.286-.211) but Ripken has only two fewer RBIs (11-9). Last year, Ripken, Bell and Tim Hulett combined for only 34 RBIs at second. This season, Ripken and McLemore already have combined for 20.

Oates would prefer to keep picking his spots with both, getting the most out of his informal platoon. Ripken and McLemore are probably better off that way too. Like Hulett, their offensive limitations become more apparent when they play every day.

Ripken began the season with a higher career average (.247-.225) in nearly twice as many at-bats, but McLemore has evolved into a different hitter under Greg Biagini, the former Rochester manager who is now the Orioles' hitting coach.

Right now he's in a 1-for-14 slump, and his case will weaken if he stops hitting, for Ripken is a better fielder. But at least McLemore presents a legitimate challenge. Ripken, the cozy incumbent, was getting a free ride.

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