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WINTER OF DISCONTENT BROUGHT FREE-AGENT FREEZE TO RIPKEN

The Buffalo Bisons expect to open their season with a shortstop who has played more than 700 games in the major leagues and is not yet over the hill.

Baseball's labor dispute is the main reason for this unusual circumstance.

Because of it, Billy Ripken, a veteran of the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, remained a free agent all winter until joining the Bisons last week. When the Bisons start the season April 6, it will be Ripken's first opening day in Triple A instead of the majors since 1987.

"It seemed tough to swallow right off the bat," the 30-year-old Ripken said from the Bisons' camp in Winter Haven, Fla. "But the bottom line is it's better to be playing than sitting at home wondering if this thing's going to settle and if I'd get an opportunity to go somewhere else."

Ripken was a utility infielder for Texas the past two years after spending the previous 5 1/2 as Baltimore's full-time second baseman.

He was batting .309 in his part-time role with the Rangers last year when he suffered a bruised hip in mid-July.

"It was just a bruise that I needed about two days off for, but the way the situation was going with the labor issue, two days seemed like an eternity to the Rangers," Ripken said. "Their goal was to finish in first place, and they were in a race. They didn't know when the strike might happen. They wanted help immediately."

So Ripken was put on the disabled list and became a free agent after the season. Given his credentials, he surely would have been signed as a utility man in a normal offseason.

However, he was one of more than 200 veteran free agents left dangling into the spring.

"I felt I couldn't afford to sit out any longer and wait for an invite after the strike was settled," he said. "I've heard Buffalo was very 'primo' as far as Triple A organizations go. That was a big factor in my decision to agree with Cleveland."

So the Bisons will open with a big-league caliber fielder at short, where they need Ripken, even though he spent much of his big-league time at second base.

Ripken led American League second basemen in 1992 in fielding percentage (.997). He has sure hands and is superb at turning the double play. His career big-league batting average is .243.

Perhaps even more than his defense, Ripken thinks his trademark is his approach to the game.

Like his brother, Cal Ripken Jr., Billy was instilled with a clear view of the "right way" to play the game by his father, Cal Sr., the former Orioles manager.

"I play the game hard and go out there every day to play, and that's big on my list of what I'm most proud of," Ripken said. "Every time I'm in the lineup I do whatever I can to win games for the club.

"At the big-league level you have your superstars, and everybody knows who they are. I do all the little things that the superstar is not called on to do. You make the routine play day-in and day-out and you help your ballclub win. You turn the double play, you help your ballclub win. I'm the type of guy who sacrifice bunts. I hit-and-run. Everybody on the team has a role to play, and I've played long enough to know what mine is."

"He's doing a great job," said Bisons manager Brian Graham. "He has a tremendous makeup. He's very knowledgeable and has a tremendous work ethic. He definitely gets the maximum out of his ability."

Ripken, of course, hopes to get a ticket to the majors as soon as possible. If it doesn't come because of an injury in Cleveland, it could via a trade.

Meanwhile, Ripken is confident the strike will not have any adverse affect on his brother's quest to break Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. Cal Ripken Jr. is on track to break the mark late this season if the strike is settled soon.

"He's made it clear he won't play no matter what during the strike," Billy Ripken said. "But the players and people who understand the game realize what he has done and gone through, and how he has played the game every day . . . for 12 years and counting.

"They understand what that means, and I don't think that will be held against him later on. I think they'll slap an asterisk on him, but I think that asterisk will end up being taken off."

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