John McGrath: Give us something to talk about, Zduriencik: Hire Ripken

Staff WriterNovember 1, 2013 

While the search for the next Seattle Mariners manager is drawing shrugs and yawns from fans who’ve forgotten how to care, it’s almost impossible to imagine a candidate capable of making a splash.

Almost.

How does Cal Ripken Jr. sound? If it’s learned that general manager Jack Zduriencik has reached out to Ripken, are you still hitting the snooze button whenever the topic turns to Eric Wedge’s replacement?

Wouldn’t a legend awaken Sleepy Hollow?

First things first: Ripken is not campaigning to manage in Seattle, or anywhere else. His name was floated as a dark horse possibility for the Washington Nationals job that was accepted by Matt Williams, but the Nationals never pursued Ripken, and he never pursued them.

But just because Ripken is not actively seeking managerial work doesn’t mean he’s not intrigued by the idea. On an Oct. 6 podcast with sportscaster Rich Eisen, the 19-time All-Star, who retired from the Orioles in 2001, admitted he was “starting to get the itch” to wear a uniform again and that he has “thought about how cool it would be to manage.”

A few weeks later, speaking to The Washington Post, Ripken recalled his decision to forgo an everyday association with baseball until his two children – daughter Rachel and son Ryan – had graduated from high school

and moved on to college.

Rachel has finished her college studies and lives in Colorado. Ryan is a first baseman at Indian River State College in Fort Pierce, Fla.

“I meant it when I said when I get away from baseball, that I was going to be there for my kids until they went off to college,” Ripken told the Post. “It’s almost like it’s still holding me back a little bit, because Ryan’s in that stage where I like watching him and I like helping him. But he’s moving more on his own.

“What I’ve always said is, if an opportunity comes, I would be in position to listen and explore it.”

The key words there are “listen” and “explore.” Ripken hasn’t called Zduriencik, but if Zduriencik called Ripken, it’s obvious the conversation would be sincere, with a chance to be substantial.

I know the arguments against Ripken: He’s a Hall of Famer, and the list of enshrined players who went on to become managers begins with Ted Williams (one winning season with the Washington Senators in 1969, followed by three seasons of generation-gap futility) and ends with Ryne Sandberg (who worked his way through the minor-league ranks before having the “interim” tag removed, in late September, as manager of the Phillies).

That’s it, Williams and Sandberg, and the Williams’ saga turned into a train wreck that contributed to a dubious premise: as managers, all-time great players can’t relate to those who don’t possess all-time great talent. Are we sure? Ted Williams, who had the people skills of a feral cat, couldn’t relate to his players in the early 1970s. This means a Hall of Famer like Ripken can’t relate to players in 2014?

Another knock on Ripken is that he’d scoff at an offer from Seattle. He grew up in Maryland, spent every day of his career with the Orioles organization, and thanks to his many business and charity interests, remains a pillar of the Baltimore community. Why would he relocate to the other side of the continent and associate himself with a fallen-down franchise that has no particular clue on how to pick itself up?

Because he’s got the itch to manage, that’s why. He doesn’t need the money. He doesn’t need the attention. What he needs is the challenge, the same challenge Babe Ruth craved but never got.

Maybe the itch is inherited. The late Cal Ripken Sr. managed farm clubs for the Orioles for 13 years, as well as the big club in 1987 and for a few desultory days in 1988. The firing of Cal Ripken Sr. was a low point in his son’s career, but also an illuminating one: He learned how the managing gig works.

You lose once or twice, no sweat. You lose 95 games over a season, and the first six games of the next, it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve devoted to the organization, or how many thrills your son has provided as a power-hitting shortstop, the very face of the franchise. You’re toast.

Ripken gets that, and yet he’s still eager to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Managing requires both tactical acumen and the authoritative presence to preside over a 25-player clubhouse where cultures and languages differ, where baseball is the only common denominator. Does Ripken, who never has managed or coached at any pro level, own the necessary credentials?

It’s a fair question best answered by another question: Are you kidding?

He played 2,632 games – more than 16 seasons – without taking a day off. Lou Gehrig’s streak of consecutive games was considered as off-the-charts untouchable as Cy Young’s 511 victories, and when Ripken surpassed it on Sept. 6, 1995, he was so fatigued that he finally had to sit one out – on Sept. 20, 1998.

Ripken can be forgiven for not wanting to go to the low minor leagues to earn his managerial stripes, the way Sandberg did. A baseball analyst for TBS, Ripken still follows the game. He knows that the Chicago White Sox hired Robin Ventura as a manager with no experience at managing. Same with the Colorado Rockies’ Walt Weiss, and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Matheny.

Ventura and Weiss look like they’re in for the long haul, and Matheny, in his second season, just took the Cardinals to a World Series they lost in six games.

Having fanned on Don Wakamatsu and Wedge, the Mariners need the third managerial hire of Zduriencik’s five-year tenure as GM to be a hit. They need fans buzzing, and talk-show lines jammed with callers offering baseball-related opinions. They need a manager with a name and a face.

Cal Ripken Jr. is out there.

Go for it, Jack. Tell him how this once-dynamic baseball town has lost its lovin’ feeling – or any feeling – about the Mariners. Tell him how Sleepy Hollow can be revived by a legend.

He’ll listen.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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