- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Here are a few players ranked behind then-Baltimore Orioles third baseman Ryan Minor in a magazine list of 1998's top spring training prospects: Lance Berkman, Mike Lowell, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay and Richie Sexson. What else do they have in common? Earlier this month, all played in the All-Star Game, which ended in a controversial tie.

As for Ryan Minor, a few days after that he signed with the Newark (N.J.) Bears of the Atlantic League.

Newark is just across the Hudson River from New York City. It is so close that until last September 11, you could sit in the Bears' recently built Riverfront Stadium and enjoy a view of the Twin Towers. But in terms of baseball, it is light years away. The Atlantic is an independent league with no big league affiliations.

It's the Last Chance Saloon, providing refuge and hope for has-beens and never-wases searching for whatever it is they lost, trying to get to where they believe they belong. Outfielder Mark Whiten, who hit four home runs in a game for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1993, plays for the Long Island Ducks. Last year Jose and Ozzie Canseco, Lance Johnson and Jaime Navarro played for Newark while hoping to resurrect their careers. So did former New York Yankees World Series hero Jim Leyritz. It didn't help.

Ryan Minor thinks it will help. If it doesn't, he is ensured a berth with another club.

Not a baseball club, but a collection of players who have become historical footnotes or the answers to trivia questions. Every sport has them. In baseball, the club includes Carroll Hardy, the only player to pinch-hit for Ted Williams; Al Downing, the pitcher who served up Hank Aaron's 715th career home run, and Bill Buckner, who bobbled a certain ground ball during a certain Game 6.

Despite anything they might have accomplished before or after, we remember them only as being inextricably linked to a singular event, intertwined in history.

We remember Ryan Minor as the Guy Who Replaced Cal for one game.

When the Orioles' Cal Ripken finally decided to take a seat after 17 years and end his record consecutive games streak at 2,632, he was replaced at third base by Minor, then a 24-year-old rookie. But the night of Sept.20, 1998, at Camden Yards proved to be Minor's one and only brush with baseball glory. Once thought to be Ripken's permanent replacement, Minor hit .194 and .131 the next two seasons. It was suspected he had a problem with his swing, and it supposedly was corrected. But after five years of waiting for Minor to develop, Baltimore traded him to Montreal for pitching prospect Jorge Julio, now one of the Orioles' top young arms.

Minor also struggled with the Expos, batting .158 in 55 games, and was released at the end of last year. He signed with Seattle, whose general manager, Pat Gillick, was the Orioles' GM when Baltimore took Minor in the 33rd round of the 1996 amateur draft. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Minor was a basketball and baseball star at Oklahoma and a few months earlier was picked in the second round of the NBA Draft by Philadelphia. He didn't make the 76ers and played in the CBA before turning to baseball.

Gillick said he gave Minor a chance with the Mariners because of his power and ability to play first base and maybe designated hitter. "We thought he might fit in as an extra guy for us," Gillick said.

But Minor failed to stick with the Mariners during spring training and was released from their Class AAA Tacoma affiliate in May after hitting .229. At 28, it was clear he had failed to materialize into the player many had envisioned.

"I think probably what you're hoping for is that he shows enough to give him the playing time he needs to develop," Gillick said.

Minor did not get that time with the Orioles because Ripken remained the regular third baseman. Minor also spent some time on the disabled list. He was limited to just 88 games in 1999 and 2000, and when Ripken finally retired after last season, he was gone.

"He was in a difficult situation because Cal was there," said Gillick, who left Baltimore after the '98 season. "Probably the best thing for Ryan would have been to put him in the lineup and leave him there. Take his 100 strikeouts-plus, but possibly he'll hit 20 or 25 home runs. But with Cal at third base, that kind of blocked that step. Timing is pretty important.

"He had power, real good power. Power in Camden Yards, for sure. He had soft hands and a good arm."

On the minus side, Gillick said, "He was a below-average runner, his range was only adequate and he basically didn't make enough contact."

Minor, batting .250 with one home run and four RBI through Sunday for the Bears, recently told a reporter, "It was real disappointing because I really didn't feel I had a chance to go out and prove myself."

Despite several requests for an interview, Minor, whose twin brother, Damon, is a reserve first baseman for the San Francisco Giants, could not be reached.

The Bears are owned by ex-Yankees catcher Rick Cerone and managed by former Orioles coach and minor league manager Marv Foley. Veteran major league pitcher Mark Leiter was on the team until he recently wrecked his arm. Jack Armstrong, a 37-year-old pitcher who last worked a big league game in 1994, was in the rotation before retiring in June. Wes Chamberlain, a 36-year-old outfielder who last played in the majors in 1995, and pitcher Kevin Foster, once thought to have a bright future with the Chicago Cubs, are current Bears.

Minor played for Foley at Rochester in 2000, hitting 14 home runs in 68 games, and Foley has said he believes Minor is good enough to play in the majors. But Minor's career batting average is .177 in 142 games, which qualifies for another select club. There have been just 82 non-pitchers who played at least 140 games with a lifetime average below .200, the dreaded Mendoza Line.

"Baseball is unpredictable," Orioles general manager Syd Thrift said. But when asked specifically about Minor's career in Baltimore, Thrift became testy.

"I don't like where this is going," he said. "I really don't want to discuss it."

Former Montreal GM Jim Beattie, who traded Julio for Minor, did not respond to an interview request.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who had Minor during the 2000 season, indicated Minor might have to undergo a complete change of mindset to succeed at the major league level.

"Ryan is his own worst enemy," Hargrove said. "He puts such a tremendous amount of pressure on himself, pressure that makes it very difficult for him or for anybody else to succeed. I think that's the biggest thing I saw with Ryan. I never saw Ryan relax and let his talent work for him. He was always trying to force it."

It wasn't so much the pressure of following Ripken, said Hargrove, but more like a golfer who practices hard but loses it once he gets out on the course.

"He was a hard worker," Hargrove said of Minor. "He played hard. He was a gamer. He did everything you want. But the pressure that he put on himself just really choked off whatever success that he could have had."

Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this report.

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