MIAMI, FEB. 21 -- On a cool, rainy morning, the Baltimore Orioles began their most important experiment of spring training with Manager Cal Ripken Sr. putting rookie second baseman Pete Stanicek in left field and hitting him one ground ball after another.
He sent him sprinting toward the foul line to chase down a triple. He sent him toward the alley in left-center to stop a double. He hit balls off the brick wall of Miami Stadium and just behind the third-base bag.
"And I hit a few right at him," Ripken said, smiling.
When they'd finished, after 30 minutes of Ripken explaining the position and 30 more minutes of physical work, Stanicek leaned over, hands on knees.
The Orioles hope that Stanicek will be standing in left field in Baltimore on opening day, that this attempt to move an infielder to the outfield will work. Stanicek is a second baseman by trade, but with Bill Ripken having won that job and Larry Sheets being moved to designated hitter, left field is all that's left.
His credentials are good enough that the Orioles believe it'll be worth it to spend many hours working to get him a new position. At 24, he comes here as the brightest young star of their farm system, having run up a .300 batting average and a .407 on-base average in three years.
He also stole 153 bases and, more impressively, has been caught only 36 times -- an 81-percent success rate. If he can play left field, the Orioles believe he could be one of the few bona fide leadoff hitters in their history, and for a team that hit 211 home runs but still finished next-to-last in runs, an offensive catalyst appears to be extremely important.
"I want to give him every chance to make this team," Ripken said. "I don't know if he can do it, but I do know he has good baseball instincts. This guy had a .400 on-base average in the minors, and we're looking for a leadoff hitter. We'd be crazy not to give him every chance."
If Stanicek fails, it would be a new experience. He not only has made the minors -- and a conversion to switch-hitting -- look easy, he also had a .309 career average at Stanford and got his economics degree in only four years.
Before that, he earned eight letters in baseball, football and basketball at Rich East High in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest. The son of a psychology teacher at Thornton Community College, Stanicek is the second-oldest of five boys in his family.
"At this point, I'm looking for any edge to stick with the team," he said. "I've never played the outfield, but it's an opportunity. I'm here early to learn it."
The biggest adjustment?
"I don't know yet. I'm sure taking flies off the bat will be different, but I imagine the hardest thing will be in throwing the ball back in."
The Orioles believe so, too. His arm, even for a second baseman, isn't strong, and some members of the organization are skeptical he can adjust to the outfield. What Ripken told him today is that he must compensate for a weak arm by getting to the ball quickly and getting rid of it quickly.
The Orioles say that baseball has had dozens of decent outfielders with weak arms. One was their own Al Bumbry, who made up for a bad arm by doing almost everything else perfectly. Steve Kemp had a weak arm, and for the last two years, former Oakland outfielder Dwayne Murphy compensated for a bad arm with hustle. Ripken looks at it another way.
"Well, who did we throw out last year anyway?" he asked. "The answer is no one."
So with Sheets going back to designated hitter, Ripken appears to be planning for an outfield of Stanicek in left, Ken Gerhart in center and Fred Lynn in right.
Stanicek joined the Orioles in 1985 as a ninth-round draft pick. He hit .251 in a shortened season at Newark, but has been a big success at every level since. He batted .317 at Class A Hagerstown in 1986, then hit .315 at AA Charlotte last season before being promoted to AAA Rochester. He started slowly there, but finished with a .297 average before joining the Orioles. In 30 games, he hit .274 and stole eight bases in nine tries.
"I think I moved up quickly," he said. "I thought they might leave me at Charlotte the whole year, but I was glad to get the chance. The numbers may look good, but it hasn't been that easy."
He said he was unbothered by Bill Ripken, also a second baseman, playing a level ahead of him.
"There are so many things you can't control," he said. "You do think things like, 'What are they going to do with me?' But I've believed that if I play well, there'll be a spot for me someplace."
Finally, if learning left field will be work, it won't be different from some of his past experiments. He stole 77 bases in 1986 and 46 last year despite missing a month with a pulled hamstring and sore knee. He does it, not with blazing speed, but by paying attention to details.