BILLY RIPKEN didn't envision his return to the major leagues
quite like this: "I can't remember the last time I went to a
baseball game and sat in the stands. It's a pretty weird
experience." Having spent the 1995 season with the Cleveland
Indians' Triple A team in Buffalo, he returned to the big
leagues last week to watch his older brother Cal Jr. finally
break Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game record at Camden Yards.
It was a bittersweet evening for Billy, who played for Baltimore
in 667 games of Cal Jr.'s streak before the Orioles released him
after the 1992 season. There had been rumors during the '95
season that the Orioles might reacquire Billy so he would be
playing second base alongside his brother on the record-breaking
night, but it never came to pass.
After his departure from Baltimore, Billy spent two
injury-plagued years as a utility infielder with the Texas
Rangers. In 1994 he hit .309 in just 32 games before a hip
injury in mid-July sidelined him for the rest of the season. As
a free agent with no place to go during the player strike last
winter, Billy signed on with the Buffalo Bisons to make sure he
had a place to play himself back into shape. "After 71√ö2 years
in the majors, it was disappointing to go to the minor leagues,"
he says. "It was a shock."
However, the 30-year-old Ripken, a good fielder but a career
.243 hitter as a major leaguer, made the best of his situation.
He wound up hitting .292 with 34 doubles (third best in the
American Association), four home runs and 56 RBIs. Regarded as
the best shortstop in the league, he made only one error in 133
chances at one point-a noteworthy stat, considering his last
regular stint at shortstop was in 1985 with Double A Charlotte.
"He's been such a vital part of our team because of his
leadership and tremendous work ethic," says Bison manager Brian
Graham, whose club finished second, with an 82-62 record. "He
makes plays with the game on the line day in and day out. And at
the plate, he's a visual aid for our young players."
The rigors of the minor league schedule and the hectic race to
make flight connections to Triple A outposts can be exhausting.
"After playing in 30 straight games, which in Triple A means 30
days in a row," Graham says, "Billy was so tired, one of his
teammates came into my office and said to me, 'You know, Billy
Ripken plays for our team, not Cal.' I got the hint. Billy got
the next day off."
For the past two months Billy has been on an emotional
loop-the-loop of anticipation and disappointment. An escape
clause in his contract allowed him to receive offers from other
major league teams during a 10-day period in July. He expected a
few clubs to be interested. "The phone didn't ring," he says.
"That was the most trying time I've had here."
In early August the rumor that had the Orioles reacquiring Billy
surfaced for the second time this year. "I never wanted to leave
Baltimore," Billy says. "I live there. It's the first team I
ever played for. It's a place that just feels right. But they
were just rumors."
So when Billy did return to Camden Yards, it was as a spectator.
Still, Graham anticipates that Billy will be called up to the
Indians after the Bisons finish play in the postseason later
this month. "It's been tough for him to be in Triple A," Graham
says. "Maybe this year will be his springboard back to the big
leagues, where he belongs."
COLOR PHOTO: JOE TRAVER THERE HAVE BEEN UPS AND DOWNS IN BUFFALO. [Billy Ripken]