Mike Bordick yesterday became the other bookend to Mark Belanger -- he'll be the Orioles' everyday shortstop after 15 years and volumes of achievement from Cal Ripken, and only because Ripken didn't stand in his way.
Ripken could have torpedoed the deal. When Bordick and Ripken spoke by phone Wednesday night, Ripken could have communicated a desire to stay at shortstop, Bordick would have stayed with the Oakland Athletics, and the Orioles would have been left with no choice but to sign third baseman Tim Naehring.
But in talking to Bordick, Ripken offered some sort of tacit approval, and after a rush of negotiations, Bordick, 31, agreed to a three-year, $9 million deal with the Orioles. Should he accumulate 502 plate appearances in 1999 or a total of 1,000 plate appearances during the 1998 and '99 seasons, a $4 million option for the year 2000 goes into effect automatically.
What Ripken, 36, thinks about moving to third, his assessment of Bordick joining the Orioles, or what Bordick thinks about replacing a national hero, is unknown, for now. Ripken declined interview requests yesterday, and Bordick was not available to comment.
On paper, however, the Orioles will have their best defensive infield since the days of Brooks Robinson, Belanger, Bobby Grich and Boog Powell. Orioles general manager Pat Gillick says Ripken could be a Gold Glove third baseman, Bordick is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game and second baseman Roberto Alomar is among the best ever at his position.
"If Cal is comfortable with this, then I am," said Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. "I think Bordick is one of the best defensive shortstops in the AL. I think, defensively, we're as good as we can possibly be."
Gillick is changing the essential nature of the Orioles, a team that set a major-league record for home runs in 1996. He is trying to bolster the pitching and defense, at the expense of offense. Since the end of the season the Orioles have lost sluggers Bobby Bonilla and Todd Zeile. They've added Bordick, who hit .240 with five homers last year.
"This move makes our pitching better, by making us a better defensive team," said Gillick.
The move of Ripken had been contemplated for months. After Ripken began the 1996 season slowly, Orioles manager Davey Johnson talked about switching him to third in May. Ripken's play improved, and he remained at shortstop, until July 15, when Johnson inserted shortstop-in-waiting Manny Alexander into the lineup. Ripken was told, at the time, that the change was permanent.
But Alexander was a complete bust, striking out 10 times, committing two errors and collecting a single hit in six games. Ripken played great defensively against the Cleveland Indians in the AL Division Series, but was subpar in the Championship Series with the New York Yankees. Gillick seemed intent on getting a new shortstop at season's end, contacting a couple of free-agent shortstops immediately after the World Series.
Ripken said he disagreed with any assessment that his skills had eroded, and his agent, Ron Shapiro, asked for a meeting with Orioles officials, encouraging them to include Ripken in the process.
Ripken met with Gillick, assistant GM Kevin Malone and manager Davey Johnson (Johnson by speaker phone) on Nov. 20. Gillick indicated to Ripken that he wasn't looking for another shortstop, but that he wanted to improve the left side of the infield, as a unit. Teaming Ripken at third with a good shortstop, Gillick said, would be better than a combination of Ripken at shortstop with a subpar third baseman.
Ripken nearly retained his shortstop job. After Ripken's talk with Bordick on Wednesday night, the Orioles knew yesterday they had a choice between signing Bordick or Naehring.
The price was about the same, three years for $9 million, and Bordick and Naehring carry strong reputations for being gritty players. But Gillick wasn't exactly sure which way he wanted to go. Naehring is a better offensive player but injury-prone, Bordick far superior defensively and more consistent.
"Bordick is basically is one of those guys who's a gamer," said Gillick. "He plays every day, he gets the job done day in and day out, does what he has to do is win."
Naehring's agent, Gregg Clifton, called Gillick at about 1 p.m. yesterday and asked which way Gillick was leaning. About 75 percent to 25 percent in favor of Bordick, Gillick replied, though he later confirmed that he had been leaning toward Naehring at one point.
Clifton told Gillick he needed a decision from the Orioles, because Cleveland, which offered Naehring $11 million over three years, was clamoring for an answer.
Gillick waited, mulling the choice with Malone, and at about 2: 45 he called Bordick's agent with a firm offer, and told the agent, Joe Bick, he needed a quick decision. Gillick wanted to be sure to have a chance to grab Naehring if Bordick decided to re-sign with Oakland.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Bordick agreed to sign, and Naehring later re-signed with the Red Sox.
Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson was infuriated at how the Bordick deal came down.
"I'm [angry] because yesterday we had the only offer on the table," Alderson said. "Today, without getting a chance with a counterproposal, he signed with somebody else. We had been led to believe we'd have another chance [to bid].
"I think money talks in this game. I think Baltimore put a gun to somebody's head, and threatened to pull the trigger. I was told he had 15 minutes to decide. What I surmised from all of this was that Mike wanted to play in Baltimore.
Gillick said, "Unfortunately, that's just the way this darn free agency works. The way these things work, you're flying in the dark, flying by the seat of your pants. But Sandy's a competitive guy, and it doesn't surprise me he's upset. I cannot, under the rules, converse with Alderson. I don't know what [the agent] is telling him. I don't have any control over that."
Shortly after Bordick agreed to terms, Gillick called Ripken to deliver the news, and thanked him for his pivotal role in signing his replacement at shortstop.
"Mike relayed to us that had it not been for Cal's words over the phone," Gillick said, "this deal would not likely be done."
The Mike Bordick file
Bats, throws: Right
Role with Orioles: He and Roberto Alomar will make up one of the slickest double-play combinations in baseball, and the pTC second-short-third trio of Alomar, Bordick and Cal Ripken will be the best in Baltimore since Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger and )) Brooks Robinson.
Strengths: He's one of the best defensive shortstops in the AL, perhaps even better than Cleveland's Omar Vizquel. Bordick is also renowned for his intensity, his no-nonsense approach to playing baseball.
Weaknesses: He's not going to give the Orioles much in the way of offense. He doesn't hit for power (21 career homers in seven years), doesn't run much (five steals in 11 attempts last season) and isn't that proficient at reaching base (.307 on-base percentage in 1996).
X-factor: Bordick will give the Orioles some options in 1999, the last year of his contract. He can play shortstop, or, if Alomar leaves as a free agent, can be moved to second base.
Career statistics (all years with Oakland):
.......... ....Batting, .......... .. .Fielding
Year, G, Avg., H, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, PO, A, E, Pct.
1990, 25, .071, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 9, 8, 0, 1.000
1991, 90, .238, 56, 5, 1, 0, 21, 146, 213, 11, .970
1992, 154, .300, 151, 19, 4, 3, 48, 311, 449, 16, .979
1993, 159, .249, 136, 21, 2, 3, 48, 285, 420, 13, .982
1994, 114, .253, 99, 18, 4, 2, 37, 187, 320, 14, .973
1995, 126, .264, 113, 13, 0, 8, 44, 245, 338, 10, .983
1996, 155, .240, 126, 18, 4, 5, 54, 266, 474, 16, .979
Tot., 823, .258, 682, 94, 15, 21, 252, 1, 449, 2222, 80, .978
League Championship Series
1992, 6, .053, 1, 0, 0, 0, 0, 15, 14, 0, 1.000
1990, 3, .000, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 0, 1.000
Pub Date: 12/13/96