An informal survey of managers and front-office types throughout the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues produced the names of five players who really know how to play the game: Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, Brewers centerfielder Robin Yount, Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg and A's leftfielder Rickey Henderson.
The following is what was said about Ripken:
"The great thing about Ripken is that everybody says he should be playing third base, but all you see him do is get to the ball and throw the guy out," said Yankees manager Stump Merrill. "All I know is that he's always in the right spot for us at the wrong time."
That's the case for a lot of other American League teams too, and in relentless, if not fancy fashion (1,413 games -- second only to Lou Gehrig -- and counting).
A perennial All-Star shortstop with the Orioles, Ripken is praised rather than criticized for lacking the flash that so often is confused with truer measures of excellence.
"I see my guy day in, day out, so I can really appreciate him and know he knows how to play the game," said Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer who has managed Ripken since 1988.
"Cal's a quiet type of a guy, doesn't say a whole lot, so he doesn't get a lot of respect for the knowledge that he has put into his effort at shortstop. But he knows the game inside-out, all facets."
Robinson, touted as a managerial candidate long before he stopped playing, especially appreciates the thinking-man traits in Ripken. "Quietly, in his own way, he'll ask you questions about situations and give his opinions on it," Robinson said. "And he doesn't just ask you questions and accept quietly. If he has an opinion, he'll let you know about it. I like that."
Ripken, for one, admits to having not only inquisitive reasons, but self-serving ones as well. "I pay attention, learn a lot and carry that over into my own game," he said.
"There's always some situation that comes up that you weren't prepared for or didn't know, so you try to learn from your experience and mistakes."
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Ripken winds up on the top five list. "I grew up around baseball, professional baseball," said Ripken, son of Cal Ripken Sr., a longtime coach and manager in the Orioles' system. "I feel I'm lucky because most kids don't get the opportunity to have major leaguers as instructors."