This was supposed to be a glorious year for Orioles shortstop
Cal Ripken. The pressure from the Streak would be gone. He would
be on a good team, one he wouldn't have to carry offensively or
direct defensively on every play. Finally, he would have an
opportunity to relax a little.
Now, however, with Baltimore manager Davey Johnson talking about
moving him to third base, Ripken finds himself at the center of
a controversy. The controversy is as much about control as
anything. It is about management seizing command of a team on
which the front office thinks the players have had too much say.
The Orioles last played a postseason game in 1983, and their
record since then is less than .500. General manager Pat
Gillick, who like Johnson is in his first year with the
Baltimore organization, has questioned whether the "nucleus of
the team knows how to win." Gillick and Johnson believe that the
Orioles were too relaxed last year--Baltimore had one of the
deadest clubhouses in the majors--and they don't want any player
feeling too comfortable. They don't want anything to be
considered sacred, even Ripken's consecutive-game streak.
Ripken, 35, hasn't played third base in almost 14 years, but
Gillick and Johnson believe the Orioles will be a better team
with him at third, 25-year-old Manny Alexander--a lifetime .233
hitter in 118 major league games--at shortstop, the injured B.J.
Surhoff moving from third base to rightfield and DH/outfielder
Bobby Bonilla moving to another team. Baltimore has tried to
deal Bonilla for pitching, but because of his salary ($4.5
million), his free-agent status after this season, his petulant
attitude (he has spent most of the early season whining about
his DH role) and his weak hitting (.231, with three home runs
through Sunday), there have been no takers.
The proposed infield shift, which Johnson told reporters about
on May 20, has left Ripken disappointed and confused. However,
he will make the switch without complaint, because, as always,
he will do anything to help the team.
Still, it's hard to see how this will help the Orioles. Even
though he may have lost a step defensively and isn't throwing as
well as he has in years past, Ripken is still a very good
shortstop. He's much better than the erratic Alexander, who,
says one teammate, "has no feel for the game." If Alex
Rodriguez, the Mariners' 20-year-old phenom, were waiting to
play shortstop in Baltimore, Ripken would run to third base, but
Alexander is only slightly better equipped to succeed Ripken
than two other failed challengers from the past, Jackie
Gutierrez and Juan Bell. To try to ease the pressure on
Alexander, the Orioles were most likely waiting for Tuesday's
game in Seattle--a night contest on the West Coast--to make the
switch. Yet if the experiment doesn't go well, it could last
only as long as it takes Surhoff, who is eligible to come off
the disabled list this Sunday, to get back into shape to play in
Even if the move was worth trying, the timing was all wrong. At
week's end Baltimore had won 11 of its last 15 games, running
its record to 27-20, and closed to within a half game of the
Yankees in the American League East. More than anything else, it
was the timing that was confounding many Orioles last week. Said
one, "A hundred percent of the players are against this, except
Manny, because he wants to play." Second baseman Roberto Alomar,
the league's best player this year, is unhappy about it,
according to one teammate. "No comment," said Alomar, who signed
a three-year free-agent deal in December so he could play next
to Ripken. Why upset a guy who was hitting .401 through Sunday
and tends to become moody when things don't go his way? And what
about Surhoff, who signed with the Orioles in the off-season
after nine years in Milwaukee? Before he sprained his ankle, he
had hit 10 home runs and had 26 RBIs in 38 games. He was also
playing surprisingly well at third.
"They won't be a better team if Ripken moves," says Angels coach
Rick Burleson, a former shortstop. "He still has the best glove
in the league. There's a lot more to playing shortstop than
catching a ground ball. There are coverages, cutoffs,
positioning, rundowns. He will be the first to know when it's
time to move. And he should be the one who decides when it's
time to move."
Gillick and Johnson believe that such decisions rest with the
manager. And Johnson, who guided the Mets to a championship in
1986, is not afraid of controversy. He says that players
sometimes perform better when on edge.
So Johnson is putting the Orioles on edge, rattling some cages,
including Ripken's. Many Orioles turn to Ripken for advice. In
the last two seasons he has occasionally called pitches from his
shortstop position. Last year he persuaded then manager Phil
Regan not to change the Orioles' bunt coverage plays, arguing
that trying to make the adjustments during a strike-abbreviated
spring training was not a good idea.
"All I can tell you is that whatever we do, it will be best for
Cal, best for the team, best for everyone," Johnson, a Baltimore
second baseman from 1965 to '72, said last week. Johnson wants
to restore the Orioles' winning tradition, of which he was very
much a part, by ensuring that his players perform with passion
and are accountable to the manager. But by taking a bold stance
in the Ripken matter, he risks losing the support of some of his
players. If this move had to be made, it should have been
accomplished in spring training. That would have given Ripken
six weeks to relearn third base and Alexander a fair chance to
succeed at shortstop.
Our lasting image of Mike Sharperson came from his first and
only All-Star Game appearance, in 1992 at San Diego's Jack
Murphy Stadium. Sharperson, who hit 10 home runs in eight major
league seasons, sat in the National League clubhouse and
gleefully told of the time he won a minor league home
run-hitting contest, beating a star-studded lineup that included
Cecil Fielder. "How come I'm not in this one?" he said,
referring to the All-Star home run-hitting contest that was
scheduled for later that day. Surrounded by sluggers, he laughed
and said, "I'd beat all of these guys."
That was Sharperson, always laughing--and always playing the
game with a zest that was as evident as his smile. Early Sunday,
Sharperson, 34, lost control of his car and crashed on a
rain-slickened Las Vegas highway. Sharperson, who was not
wearing a seat belt, was ejected through the sun roof. He died
about two hours later.
Later that day Sharperson, an infielder for the Padres' Triple A
affiliate in Las Vegas, was to have boarded a flight to Montreal
to join the parent team. San Diego officials said there was no
guarantee that Sharperson would have been promoted once he
arrived in Montreal, but the Padres wanted him around in case
they decided to put Gold Glove third baseman Ken Caminiti on the
disabled list. Caminiti had been sidelined since May 21 with a
Sharperson played for three major league teams: the Blue Jays in
1987, the Dodgers from '88 to '93 and the Braves last year. He
had a career .280 average.
With lefthander Jim Abbott struggling and lefthander Mark
Langston out for at least another four weeks with a knee injury,
the Angels are desperately searching for pitching to go with
their one reliable starter, Chuck Finley. They asked the Brewers
about Ricky Bones, but Milwaukee didn't want to make a trade.
They're also considering attempting to make deals for Kevin
Appier of the Royals, Pat Hentgen of the Blue Jays, Darryl Kile
of the Astros or Scott Sanders or Tim Worrell of the Padres.
At 28, Abbott isn't close to being the pitcher he used to be.
"He's done," one American League scout says. At week's end
Abbott was 1-7 with a 6.39 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 62 innings.
His strikeout total has decreased in each of the last four
years, often the sign of a pitcher who is losing his stuff. The
same scout recently clocked Abbott's fastball at 80 mph, which
is roughly 10 mph slower than it was a few seasons ago. All
Abbott seems to throw are cut fastballs. He no longer has that
biting curveball or a pitch that can bore in on a lefthanded
Bad pitching note of the week: Through Sunday an American League
team had scored 10 or more runs in a game 91 times this season.
In 42 of those games the starting pitcher for the team that
scored in double figures hadn't gotten the win. Seven times a
team had scored at least 10 runs and lost.
Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn is one of the few players who
buys his own bats. Why? Under San Diego's previous ownership,
when a player cracked a bat, the club would sell the bat,
sometimes for as much as $200, and pocket the money. So Gwynn
started paying for his own supply, which also allowed him to
give away his broken bats. Under the Padres' new ownership, led
by John Moores, broken bats are sold, but the money goes to
charity....Phillies lefthander Terry Mulholland hit a 407-foot
home run on May 21 in San Diego. "Right before the at bat, I was
telling someone that Terry had the third-lowest average [.081]
of any pitcher in history with 400 at bats," says Phillies
righthander Curt Schilling. "Next pitch, pow!" Said Mulholland,
"Most great power hitters don't hit for a high average." It was
the second career home run for Mulholland, who bats righthanded.
In his next appearance, Sunday against the Giants, Mulholland
added a double and a run-scoring single. His career average
jumped to .087, moving him to fourth on the alltime list....The
Pirates are expected to use the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft
next week to take Clemson righthander Kris Benson. If they don't
choose Benson, they'll select Matt White, a high school pitcher
from Waynesboro, Pa. According to one National League general
manager, while this draft is deep in pitching, there are no more
than 15 true first-round selections. "This is the kind of year,
if you have a late first-round pick and you could pass, you
would so you wouldn't have to pay first-round money," the G.M.
said. A late first-round pick will get about $400,000 to sign.
Typically there's a significant drop-off in pay to a
second-round pick....The Mariners' Ken Griffey hit three homers
last Friday against the Yankees. He's the fifth American League
player to hit three in a game this year, joining teammate Dan
Wilson, the Tigers' Fielder and the A's Geronimo Berroa and
Ernie Young. This is the first year in American League history
that teammates from two teams have hit three homers in a
game.... Rockies centerfielder Larry Walker set a National
League record on May 21 and 22 by getting an extra-base hit in
six straight at bats. At week's end Padres leftfielder Rickey
Henderson had five extra-base hits all season.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Baltimore feels Ripken may have lost a step and that his arm isn't what it was. [Cal Ripken Jr.]
PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON The versatile Sharperson had his best years as a utility infielder with the Dodgers in the early 1990s. [Mike Sharperson]