It's a preseason of cheer for Ripken Fan favorite is applauded even picking up stray balls


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The hero worship of Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken is bordering on the absurd. When he is in eyeshot of the 1,500 fans or so who gather in Fort Lauderdale Stadium, literally every move is cheered.

Manager Davey Johnson was talking with the media yesterday when the crowd roared. "Must be Cal," Johnson said.

He was right. There are three fields at the complex, two out of sight of fans. Ripken worked out in the stadium yesterday, and was cheered when he fielded practice grounders. He was cheered when he took his cuts in batting practice, particularly when he hit homers. Ripken was even cheered when he stepped out in front of the cage to pick up balls after he finished hitting.

"How many people do you think would be here if Cal wasn't?" Brady Anderson asked, rhetorically. "Half?"

Man in the middle

Poor Jeff Huson. His locker is directly between those of pitchers Randy Myers and Roger McDowell, two noted free spirits.

"Their reputations precede them," Huson said. "It's kind of fun because I'm so quiet. I'm just waiting for them to do something funny. That's why I don't say anything and do anything -- I don't want to get the cattle prod."

Bartee signs

Kimera Bartee signed yesterday, for $109,000 if he stays with the Orioles and $10,000 if he returns to the minor leagues. The Orioles selected Bartee from Minnesota in the Rule 5 draft, and they must keep him on the major-league roster all season or offer him back to the Twins for $25,000.

There are six unsigned players, the most prominent of whom is outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds. Assistant GM Kevin Malone indicated the team intends to renew the contracts of the six by March 2.

Wild day with Benitez

Armando Benitez's control was erratic when throwing batting practice yesterday, many of his pitches sailing high.

"With him, it's going to be two steps forward, one step back," said pitching coach Pat Dobson. "I talked to him today and told him he shouldn't feel the need to do everything we ask all at once. He's making progress."

It's apparent the Orioles want Benitez to be on the team, and develop him slowly in a middle relief job -- as many now believe they should've done last year.

Who's on third?

Johnson said the starting third baseman will be chosen based on defensive ability. "And he has to be able to hit a bit, too."

Of the two competitors for the job, B. J. Surhoff probably is a little more fluid in his movement than Bobby Bonilla, but Bonilla has the stronger arm. Another outside possibility is a platoon of ,, Huson and Bill Ripken.

"I'll be looking at all the scenarios," Johnson said. "That would be third on my list."

Presidential pardon

When the Atlanta Braves went to the White House as a reward for their World Series victory last fall, at least two members of the championship team weren't invited -- current Orioles Kent Mercker and Mike Devereaux.

"I would've liked to have gone," Mercker said. "To play poker with these guys on the way there, with Steve Avery, John Smoltz, Mad Dog [Greg Maddux]."

Poker? Rather than meet the president?

"I'd like to meet him," Mercker said. "Just because you don't agree with everything he does, he's still the president."

Ad-vantage, Mussina

Mike Mussina scoffs at the idea that major-league games will move faster if umpires are ordered to implement the proposed change in the strike zone. Major League Baseball may tell umps to call strikes just below the kneecap, increasing the strike zone by one to two inches.

"What's the difference between this?" said Mussina, holding a ball against his knee, "and this?"

He moved the ball down slightly to demonstrate his point: Not much of a difference.

"They mess with the game too much," he said. "If a game takes three hours, it takes three hours. If you want to speed up the game, take out the [TV] commercials."

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