FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The dean of shortstops moves to third base today, and Cal Ripken will find his workload decreased, like a professor given the luxury of two lectures rather than three.
Even with the position change, Ripken will continue to assume some of his former duties, such as dictating how the Orioles defense shifts on bunt plays. But by the mere nature of the positions, responsibility will shift from Ripken to new shortstop Mike Bordick.
From his vantage point, the shortstop sees what signs the catcher is giving to the pitcher, and that is the basis of much of what occurs in the infield.
"From a technical standpoint," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson, "the shortstop is theoretically the captain of the infield. He decides who is covering second base on a steal, he calls who is covering the base on a ball back to the pitcher. He alerts the third baseman on bunt plays, he might alert the third baseman to move in."
The shortstop often dictates, too, the positioning of the entire infield. As a shortstop, Ripken would do this constantly. If he thought a right-handed hitter might pull a ball, Ripken would shift the third baseman accordingly -- remember how often B. J. Surhoff and Todd Zeile would glance at Ripken? -- and then position himself closer to the third base line. As Ripken moved to his right, the second baseman usually would, too.
Ripken still possesses more experience than any member of the Orioles' infield, more than Bordick, second baseman Roberto Alomar or first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. But now the infield will follow Bordick, because, as Johnson explained, playing shortstop has the highest degree of difficulty; it is he who has the toughest play to make, the throw from the hole.
"He's got more territory to cover," said Johnson.
Sometimes, the infielders will play their own hunches. Bordick said that when he was in Oakland, he would follow his instincts and the second baseman would do something different; Bordick might shift a step or two to the right, the second baseman a step or two to the left. Ripken might be inclined to play in. It doesn't have to be uniform, said infield coach Sam Perlozzo.
"Maybe on some guys, you're going to give them the middle and take away the holes," said Perlozzo.
Occasionally infielders will look to each other for help on how to position themselves, as Bobby Bonilla did when he played third, glancing at Ripken for advice; Bonilla, traded out of the National League by the New York Mets, didn't know the American League hitters. Perlozzo is ready in the dugout to offer scouting reports, in case there's a hitter nobody's seen before.
"But we have an advantage," said Johnson, "in that our entire infield has played in the American League for a long time, and they'll know how they want to play almost all of the hitters."
Ripken has always been adept at adjusting his positioning according to what pitch is being thrown. In other words, if a hard-throwing right-hander got the sign for a fastball low and away, Ripken might cheat a little up the middle. He would regularly intercept balls that looked like hits, and he would do so because of his positioning.
But now, playing third, he usually won't be able to see the catcher's signs to the pitcher. Bordick will relay that information when he can, with subtle cues.
"He might whistle, or call somebody's name," said Perlozzo. "He might have some special name or code for an off-speed pitch, for instance. If he can tell Cal that a slow curveball is being thrown to a right-handed hitter, that might help Cal get a little extra step on his positioning."
Some scouts say Bordick is one of the best in the game at deking runners at second base, driving them back to the bag and cutting down their leads with feints.
It's an important quality, in a spring training when Johnson and new pitching coach Ray Miller are making the defense of the running game a priority. Miller has inserted several new pickoff plays in drills this spring, and Bordick and Alomar will be active around second base when runners are there, like birds dive-bombing a cat.
Ripken will continue to dictate the rotation of the infielders on bunt plays. Johnson said: "Because of Cal's stature, he'll call the bunt plays most of the time. It'll be Cal, and I'll be giving him help from the dugout. With his experience, you couldn't find a better one to call bunt plays."
The consensus around the AL is that Ripken is going to be a superlative third baseman. One scout says, "You know, he had so much to worry about in recent years, positioning the infield, cutoffs, sometimes calling pitches, bunt plays, and he was playing every day. He suffered because of it, sometimes. Now he doesn't have to worry about all that stuff, and he can just concentrate on being a great third baseman."
Pub Date: 2/20/97