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Minor isn't ready to take a seat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LANCASTER, Pa. - The towering figure emerges from the bare-bones clubhouse, passing the cement slabs and tarp rolls that some day will be a batting cage.

He lumbers to the home dugout, sits down and peers out at the green grass and brick facade of Clipper Magazine Stadium. There's only a number on the back of his jersey; he's another nameless member of the Lancaster Barnstormers, a first-year franchise in the independent Atlantic League.

In one way, this fresh, beautiful ballpark a few miles from the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish country is a perfect setting for his comeback story.

In another, the whole scene is torture.

What first sets Ryan Minor apart from most Atlantic Leaguers is his size - he's 6 feet 7 and 250 pounds. Then it's his resume.

Seven years ago, he was the Orioles' top prospect. He had size, power, good hands and a rocket arm. He also had the misfortune of being labeled the heir apparent at third base to a baseball legend.

Now he's a 31-year-old first/third baseman playing for $3,000 a month in a league that markets family entertainment ahead of baseball excellence. He's living in a host family's basement, three hours from his wife. He's hoping to get noticed in baseball's most respected independent league, one that once had Rickey Henderson and Ruben Sierra and now showcases John Rocker, among others.

"Hopefully, there is a chance for me to be picked up this year," Minor said. "It is still early, I guess, but every day gets a little later in the season. It is tough to sit here every day, but you have to do it."

Minor is only 75 miles from Baltimore, yet a world removed from Camden Yards.

A cruel path

For most who have dreamed of baseball stardom, there is that moment of clarity.

Whether it comes in Little League, American Legion, high school or beyond, eventually baseball proves too cruel.

Another path must be discovered.

For Minor, it is not that easy.

His life is sports; it has been since he was a child.

He was named by USA Today as one of the nation's 25 best high school players as a senior and was drafted by the Orioles. Instead, he went to the University of Oklahoma, where he starred in baseball and basketball.

His sophomore year, he helped lead the Sooners to a national baseball championship. His junior year, he was the Big Eight Conference's Player of the Year in basketball.

Drafted in both sports after his senior season, he was cut by the Philadelphia 76ers in training camp. He played a season in the Continental Basketball Association before the Orioles persuaded him to concentrate on baseball.

It looked like a brilliant move. In 1997, his first full season of pro baseball, Minor was named the organization's Player of the Year. By September 1998, he had made the jump from Double-A to the majors at the age of 24.

"At that point, he hadn't played a tremendous amount of baseball," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo. "But with the skills he had, we expected him to develop and blossom into a great player."

It's difficult to pinpoint why his career went south so rapidly, how Minor went from Baseball America's No. 1 Orioles prospect in 1998 to little more than a trivia question answer a few years later.

"You just wonder what went wrong," Minor said. "But the bottom line comes down to opportunities and producing when you get them, and I didn't do that in Baltimore at all."

Subbing for Ripken

Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller won't forget Sept. 20, 1998, the night the greatest three-word quote in club history was uttered.

"Does he know?"

Shortly before an ESPN Sunday night game against the New York Yankees, Cal Ripken decided he had had enough. After 2,632 consecutive games played, Ripken chose that evening to end his streak, and he informed Miller, his manager at the time.

Five minutes before the team went out on the field, Miller grabbed Minor, who had made his major league debut a week earlier.

"I ran into him in the hallway and I said, 'Ryan, you are going to play [for Ripken],'" Miller remembered with a smile. "And he said, 'Does he know?' That's exactly what he said."

Despite reports that he looked "like a deer in headlights," Minor said he wasn't scared when told the news. His question, he said, was an attempt to make light of the situation - one that ultimately would define his career. And maybe, indirectly, lead to its demise.

"I actually kind of felt like I was on a pedestal with Cal that night. It was kind of fun being in the press conference with him," Minor said. "That was kind of neat. I will always remember that."

With that start, Minor became Ripken's replacement, both literally and figuratively. But Ripken wasn't ready to retire. And first base was clogged with veterans such as Rafael Palmeiro, then Will Clark and Jeff Conine.

"I think it probably set him back, because he didn't get enough playing time," Miller said. "If he had went with a second-division or expansion club, where they'd give him two months to get set in, he probably would have done a lot better."

Minor played when Ripken didn't, like for a month in 1999 when the Iron Man was injured. Minor felt he needed to impress. The opposite happened. He didn't hit.

"I put all this pressure on myself and, with what I was getting from the outside, it really tore me down as far as being a player," he said. "When you do that, you don't produce at all, and I didn't produce at all."

Faded prospect

After Minor rode the organizational elevator for three seasons, his star had faded with the Orioles by winter 2000.

He was coming off a season in which he had hit 14 homers and driven in 48 runs at Triple-A Rochester, but he had just one extra-base hit in 84 major league at-bats.

In December 2000, the Orioles traded Minor to the Montreal Expos for Single-A right-hander Jorge Julio, who has become a key reliever for the Orioles. It was probably the best trade made during Syd Thrift's checkered regime as the club's de facto general manager.

On the other end of the deal was then-Expos GM Jim Beattie, now the Orioles' executive vice president. At the time, Minor was worth the gamble.

"When you are looking for a third baseman, you turn over as many leaves as you can to try and find someone," Beattie said. "And you think that maybe he was here under a lot of pressure. The first chance he gets didn't work, so maybe the next chance he gets he might be able to blossom a little bit."

Minor didn't want to leave his friends in Baltimore, but he viewed the trade as a new beginning. He played in just 55 games in 2001, didn't hit and was released.

"I didn't get a chance to play a whole lot, and it seemed to kind of downward spiral after that."

The Seattle Mariners grabbed him off waivers that offseason and sent him to Triple-A. He never made it back to the majors, leaving his career big league stat line at 142 games played, five homers, .177 batting average.

In 2003, the Los Angeles Dodgers grabbed him and tried to turn him into a right-handed reliever. He hadn't pitched since college, but figured it was worth a try. The experiment lasted a couple months. Then he ended up in the Atlantic League for the first time.

A ballpark meeting

Forget about the Ripken night or his first big league homer. Minor's most important moment on a baseball field came April 25, 1997.

Initially, all he saw was the cat's eyes.

Allyson Phillips was a Salisbury elementary school teacher whose mother worked for a radio station known as Cat Country. That night in April, Phillips was part of an on-field promotion in which she had to wear a "big, black furry" cat costume. Minor, the star at Single-A Delmarva, didn't really notice her. After all, she was a mascot.

While Phillips helped out the station, her stepfather, a big baseball fan, asked Minor to sign a baseball for Phillips' birthday.

After the game, she went down to the field to thank Minor.

"I wasn't dressed as the cat then," she said with a laugh.

"We kind of hit it off right there," Minor said. "We have been together ever since."

They married in October 1999. Instead of following her husband around the country, she stayed in Salisbury teaching kindergarten. Now she is the one supporting Minor - financially and emotionally.

"It's not too hard, because it is something he wants to do," she said. "I don't want to be the one to say, 'Hang it up.' It's got to be something he decides. Now, if it's 10 [more] years down the line, then, yeah, something is wrong with me."

Minor has promised himself he won't be doing this in his mid-30s if he's not at, or close to, the majors. He almost retired last season, when he was released by the Florida Marlins organization after 48 games in Double-A. But being signed out of the Atlantic League last year gave him hope it could happen again in 2005.

"I don't have any regrets about anything. If I would have played basketball instead of baseball, I wouldn't have been able to meet my wife," Minor said. "Baseball gave me the opportunity to meet somebody I am going to be with the rest of my life."

A comfortable spot

In front of every clubhouse locker at Clipper Magazine Stadium sits a padded "Barnstormers" stool. Except in front of Minor's.

A folding canvas chair with arm rests and drink holders guards the former major leaguer's locker. This isn't the Atlantic League's version of Barry Bonds' Barcalounger, though. There are no special privileges here. Minor found the chair stuffed in the trunk of his car, a remnant from a fishing trip. He figured it was more comfortable than the stool.

There's no substitute for experience.

Like his chair, Minor stands out in the cozy clubhouse, one that hadn't been equipped with a stereo system, television or clock a month into the season.

Only a handful of the Barnstormers have major league experience, so when Minor talks, they listen. When he arrives early to the ballpark, they watch. And they see Minor as any other teammate, not as a former can't-miss prospect.

"He doesn't act like he was ever in the big leagues. He's just a good guy," said Travis Hake, the Barnstormers shortstop. "He's a professional guy on and off the field."

Hake grew up near Red Lion, Pa., about an hour's drive north of Camden Yards. He attended five to 10 Orioles games each year, and he remembers Minor - mainly as the guy who replaced Ripken the day the streak ended.

"I mess with him now. I tell him I was his biggest fan," Hake joked. "He always laughs and tells me to shut up."

Hake said Minor doesn't regale the team with stories from the big leagues, but occasionally one slips out. Like the constant pressure of replacing Ripken.

"He told me he could hear guys from the upper deck yelling, 'We want Cal. You [stink],'" Hake said. "That's got to be hard. When you feel the fans don't want you, that's a tough situation."

As Minor's career unfolded at Camden Yards, the taunts increased. He still hears them occasionally in the Atlantic League. Sometimes, hecklers will bring up Ripken. Other times, they'll make puns on his last name.

"Even in the offseason, we'll go out to the bar or to dinner or something and you'll have the occasional guy come up and pop off a little bit," Minor said. "A lot of times, they want to call you a failure and they like to comment about how you never really amounted to anything, little stuff like that. It's just water off my back; it doesn't bother me a bit."

Not adjusting

In the end, only one thing matters in pro baseball: putting up numbers.

Despite the obvious talent, Minor didn't do that in the majors.

"I just think he didn't adjust to pitchers that well," said Miller, his former manager. "To me, it looked like if someone threw three pitches in a row, by the third he'd be right with you. But if they alternated on him, he never really picked up the pitch."

And he's not putting up eye-popping numbers in the Atlantic League. Entering last night's game, he was batting .261 with seven homers and 24 RBIs in 157 at-bats for Lancaster.

He hasn't given up yet, though. And Lancaster's manager, former big leaguer Tommy Herr, admires that drive.

"I'm sure he feels like by continuing to play, somebody somewhere might ... give him a shot back in the big leagues, that is what he is looking for," Herr said. "He is not going to get that chance sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring."

Minor understands a comeback is improbable. He jokes that even his agents have "forgotten my number." But he wants one more shot at the affiliated minors. Or he'd be willing to play in Japan, where his twin brother, Damon, a former major leaguer, is.

If not, he'd like to coach. Maybe in the minors, maybe in college. Baseball is his life. He doesn't want it to end. For that, he makes no apologies.

"It hasn't been the smoothest ride. It hasn't been the best one," he said. "But I have enjoyed it. I've enjoyed everything I have done and I wouldn't change anything because I have had a chance to play and continue playing, and that's all I could ask for."

Ryan Minor

Born: Jan. 5, 1974

College: Oklahoma

Basketball career: Big Eight Conference Player of the Year as a junior. Drafted in second round by 76ers in 1996. Cut by 76ers and played in CBA.

Baseball career: Has played 142 games in the majors. Played in Orioles, Expos, Mariners, Dodgers and Marlins organizations.

Top AL prospects in 1998

Orioles, Ryan Minor, 3B

Yankees, Eric Milton, LHP

Red Sox, Brian Rose, RHP

Blue Jays, Roy Halladay, RHP

Devil Rays, Matt White, RHP

Indians, Sean Casey, 1B

Twins, Luis Rivas, SS

White Sox, Mike Caruso, SS

Tigers, Juan Encarnacion, OF

Royals, Dee Brown, OF

Angels, Troy Glaus, 3B

Athletics, Ben Grieve, OF

Mariners, Ryan Anderson, LHP

Rangers, Ruben Mateo, OF

Source: Baseball America

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