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The game still fits like a glove

Billy Ripken's older brother is baseball's Man of Iron, but his own career has been filled with irony.

Instead of being a living monument to stability, he has bounced around like a weakly hit grounder, from team to team, from the majors to the minors and back.

While his Hall of Fame sibling went nearly 15 years without changing positions, Ripken switches gloves more often than an ER surgeon.

"I've got a bag of gloves now," Ripken said. "I used to only have one. Now I carry a bag with me, but that's okay with me. I knew coming into this spring, to make the team, I had to do pretty much whatever they wanted me to do, and when you come in with that attitude, it makes it a heck of a lot easier."

With Cal Ripken set to move to third base for the Baltimore Orioles, it looked as if there would be no Ripken at shortstop on Opening Day in the American League for the first time in 14 years. But this time, maybe Billy has a chance to extend a family streak.

At 32, he has earned a job as the utility infielder for the Rangers this spring and has put a challenge in to Benji Gil at shortstop.

"He's played outstanding. He got off to a real good start with the bat, which is not the reason we have him here," Rangers manager Johnny Oates said. "Billy Ripken is a guy I feel very comfortable with in any situation I put him in. He'll play all four infield positions, he has played all four for us already, and catches the ball anywhere I put him. He's a guy who when he's at the plate, I know he's going to get signs and do the little things. Move the runners along, get a hit for you once in a while.

"We tried to get him last year. Our Triple-A manager said he was the best shortstop in the American Association the year before last. Then when it came down to us and Baltimore bidding against him, I think we came up a little bit short. For some reason I don't know why he wanted to go to Baltimore."

Oates, of course, knows perfectly well why Billy has always felt more at home with the Orioles.

There have been five sets of brothers that formed a double-play combination in the majors. None have played more games than Cal and Billy Ripken, who have been paired in 723 games in the majors, starting 664.

In Cal's record streak of playing in 2,316 consecutive regular-season games, he has shared the middle infield with more than 30 second basemen. But nobody has played more games alongside Cal than Billy _ perhaps the accomplishment the younger Ripken is most proud of.

"That's got to be right up there," Ripken said. "Probably the fact I got to play so many games with him. I think I've got more than anybody else at that spot. That makes me feel proud."

On its own merit, there is much about Billy Ripken's career to respect.

Most it has been spent with the Orioles. But since '92, he has played for five teams and three organizations.

That does not include Ripken's trip to the minors during the lockout-marred '95 season.

Despite eight seasons in the majors, he was willing to spend a year playing for the Cleveland Indians' Triple-A Buffalo team in the American Association.

It was there that Ripken re-established his worth and as an everyday player, batting .292 while committing just 12 errors in 500 chances. The Indians called him up in September to finish the season.

"Right there when we were dealing with that work stoppage, I didn't think I could afford to go to Homestead and wait as a free agent," Ripken said. "When Cleveland called and said here's a chance to go to Buffalo and play shortstop every day, I said I really didn't want to go back to Triple A, that's for sure. But I made the decision to go down there and playing shortstop every day, I felt that could only help me later."

It resulted in Ripken rejoining the Orioles last season, when he batted .230 in 57 games, starting 15 at second base and 15 at third.

This will be Ripken's second stint with Texas, where he spent the '93 and '94 seasons. He is reunited with Oates, who managed the Ripkens with the Orioles.

You want streaks? Here's the one Billy Ripken is proud of. Nine straight years in the majors.

"The fun is being around the guys every day," Ripken said. "That's one thing you're going to miss when you're done playing is all the different people I've had the good fortune of playing with. When you bounce around from team to team. I saw Albert (Belle) hit 50 home runs. I played with Nolan Ryan. I played with Cal and I played with Eddie (Murray). Juan Gonzalez. The list goes on and on. That's a pretty neat thing, too."

Now the question everyone asks him: Has it been hard or easier being Cal Ripken's brother?

"Stick around and listen to some of the comments," Billy said. "Somebody's got to be his brother, so it may as well be me. That's the way I look at it. It has its pros and it has its cons. The best pro about it is when he gets some goodies in the mail and there's some leftovers, I always get them."