MIAMI, FEB. 29 -- The weekend departure of Ray Knight from the Baltimore Orioles has raised once more the question of whether Cal Ripken Jr. will be moved from shortstop, the position he has learned so well, to third base, the one that appears to fit him so naturally.
For a number of reasons, the answer appears to be, no, not this spring.
However, the surprising thing in this year's version of an annual debate is how Ripken feels. For the first time, he favors the switch -- or won't fight it.
"Actually, it would be a lot easier on me," he said. "There's less responsibility at third. I pride myself on being a good shortstop and believe I am a good shortstop, but if it was best for the team, I'd move."
Would he be a better offensive player at third?
"I can't say that," he said, "but I do think I'd be able to concentrate more on the offensive part of my game."
Until this spring there had been strong feelings in the organization that Ripken and the Orioles would be better off if he moved. The feeling was that he simply wasn't the same player Earl Weaver moved to short in 1982.
For one thing, he was different physically. When Weaver made the switch, Ripken carried a tight 200 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame. Since then, he has gained about five pounds a season, and, at a beefy 225, looks and moves more like a first or third baseman than a shortstop.
The other point was that it would be easier to find a reliable everyday shortstop than a third baseman. That was especially the case two winters ago, or so the Orioles thought, when they acquired Jackie Gutierrez from Boston.
But things have changed. Ripken has proven he can rely on positioning and smarts. More important, the Orioles appear to have the players who can settle the left side of the infield for the first time since 1980, when Doug DeCinces and Mark Belanger spent their final spring with the team.
The No. 1 prospect in the organization is 22-year-old third baseman Craig Worthington. With Knight's trade to Detroit Saturday, Worthington will be given a chance to jump to the majors after only three years of pro ball. But even if Worthington flops, the Orioles' possibly second-best prospect also is a third baseman -- Leo Gomez, who hit .326 and drove in 110 runs at Class A Hagerstown last season. Several scouts say Gomez, like Worthington, is a can't-miss prospect. Changing Times, Indeed
It would be hard to estimate how hard the past 16 months have been on Calvin E. Ripken Jr., son of the Orioles manager and the brother of the Orioles second baseman. It was unlike anything he'd experienced in his 27 years, and it was so odd, because on one level, so many wonderful things happened.
His dad got the job of his dreams; his brother Bill got the job of his dreams. Cal Jr. had a dream home built in Baltimore County, and he married his longtime companion Kelly Greer in a huge wedding this winter. The couple honeymooned in Europe and had their personal driver show them Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and the Colosseum in Rome.
He also signed a new contract that will pay him $1.75 million this season, meaning that, barring injury, he should earn about $10 million before his 30th birthday.
So what's wrong with this picture?
From about the time of his sixth birthday, when he served as a clubhouse boy for his dad in places like Aberdeen, S.D., he has wanted to be a baseball player. It's all he has ever wanted to do, and his friends say it defines his existence.
His goals have been to be the perfect player, to sign every autograph, do every interview and run out every ground ball. He has played in 927 consecutive games, and until Sept. 14, when his father abruptly ended the streak, had played 8,243 consecutive innings -- an all-time record.
He told friends the streak didn't bother him, because between mid-February and October, baseball is about all he does. He's not into golf, sightseeing, shopping, hunting or fishing. He's into baseball, and for most of a year, concentrates on only it.
So it was an abrupt change last season when he finally endured a less than perfect season. He was hitting .326 on May 16, but at about that point, his bat seemed to slow and, eventually, die. He did lead the Orioles with 98 RBI, but after May 16, he batted only .229 and finished at a career-low .252.
He bristled at suggestions of a slump last season, but at a banquet this winter announced that there were times last summer when he thought he might as well give up the game. Searching for answers, he changed his stance, first trying to pull the ball out of the park with every swing, later trying to get his average back up.
The people who know him best say all of this was no accident, that the pressure on him last summer was tremendous. For one thing, the Orioles were on their way to a 95-loss season, and the person who easily could have been fired over it was his dad/manager, Cal Sr.
Ripken denies this, saying, "I would dismiss that. I'd felt similar things in 1985 and 1986 when we were going bad. My dad wasn't the manager then, and I still felt the pressure to do too much. I told people all winter that what has happened to the Orioles is a double-edged sword for me. I grew up an Orioles fan and I've always rooted for them. As a fan, I don't like to see this, and it's worse because I'm a player having to go through it."
Others don't agree. All the Ripkens emphasize that their relationship at the ballpark is strictly professional, but anyone who has heard the way Cal Sr. describes his sons once the television cameras are off and the notebooks closed knows better.
For another thing, Cal Sr. and Cal Jr. might be as much best friends as father-son. After most home games, they stay late, and over a beer or two, discuss games, plays, pitchers, whatever has come up that night. At the Ripken-Greer wedding this winter, Cal Sr. served as best man, and in an emotional toast to the couple said, "May the most that you desire be the least that you accomplish."
So when friends hear Cal Jr. talk about trying to hit a seven-run home run, they understand why.
Regardless, Cal Jr. says he's going back to the old ways this year, that he's concentrating on doing what he's capable of doing -- and no more. Under the new Orioles regime, the positive-thinking seminars of new general manager Roland Hemond, that ought to be enough.
"I like great players," Hemond said. "And Cal Jr. is great player. That the Orioles have a Cal Ripken Jr. and an Eddie Murray are two of the reasons I came here."
Ripken's standard is a huge one. In six seasons as a starter, he has batted .284 and averaged 27 homers and 95 RBI a season. It isn't unreasonable that he'll play another decade, and if he does, he could finish with around 450 homers and 1,500 RBI -- numbers that get people into the Hall of Fame.
Heady stuff for a kid playing in his hometown for his dad, another reason he has replayed last season in his mind hundreds of times.
"I tried to do too much to help us win," he said. "I think when you're not winning, everyone tries to take that responsibility. You're a couple runs down in the eighth, and if there's a man on, you're going to try to hit the ball out of the park. What I'd always try to do in the past is just hit the ball hard somewhere. You do that, and the homers will come.
"When you're winning and everyone is contributing, it's such an easy game. You don't worry about anything. You don't even think about what you're doing, just go do it. When you're not winning, you sit around and think it's up to you to do it. That's especially true of me because I'm hitting in the middle of the order. I'm sure Eddie felt the same way. You start thinking that everything falls on your shoulders. When you're going through it, you don't even know it."
He knows it now and spent more than a few hours this winter looking back on a season that went bad.
"If you had the luxury to step back or stop the season, you could think about it," he said. "But you don't. Only later can you look back and see what you were doing. All I can say is that I hope I learn from my mistakes. My goal now is to hit the way I learned to hit."
A 23rd pitcher joined the club this morning. He's Dickie Noles, 31, who has pitched for five major league teams. His last one was the Tigers, who acquired him in a September trade and then didn't offer him a contract this winter. Noles threw a round of batting practice today and probably will be around at least a couple more days as the Orioles decide whether to offer him a contract . . .
The news on Scott McGregor's injured left shoulder continues to be good. He threw 15 minutes of batting practice, and Ripken Sr. said, "He looked good, real good. I hope it continues." McGregor rehabilitated his shoulder this winter after being diagnosed as having a thinning of the rotator cuff.
"I've aired it out the last two times out and haven't had any problem at all," McGregor said. "My elbow is a little tender, but it's the kind of ache you have every year about this time. I'm real encouraged, but I'm also smart enough to know it's still only February" . . .
Pitcher Mike Griffin is unable to work because of a sore left ankle, and outfielder Ken Gerhart continues to be bothered by a sore ankle, also . . . Second baseman/outfield experiment Pete Stanicek hit and took ground balls for the first time in four days today. He has a pulled muscle in his back . . .
The first of three intrasquad games will be played Wednesday, and the first of 28 exhibition games Saturday at Fort Lauderdale versus the New York Yankees.