Cal Ripken tonight makes his eighth consecutive All-Star start at shortstop. Manny Alexander could extend the Orioles' dominance of that position into the 21st century.
Alexander, 20, isn't expected to reach Baltimore before 1994, but the way he's playing at Class A Frederick, he might now rank ahead of Double A lefthander Arthur Rhodes as the organization's top long-range prospect.
That's saying something, for the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Dominican missed nearly three months last season with a back injury. The Orioles didn't expect him to rebound this quickly -- or this convincingly.
By all accounts, Alexander is a unique talent -- the complete opposite of Ripken with his acrobatic style, yet a remarkably similar player in the way he reacts to situations as they occur.
Defensively, he exhibits superb range and a powerful arm. Offensively, he generates ample bat speed and steals bases. He's so agile with his hands and feet, his teammates call him "Spiderman."
A righthanded hitter, Alexander is batting .253 with two homers and 29 RBIs. He ranks second in the Carolina League with 30 stolen bases in 40 attempts, and has made only 16 errors in 87 games -- a respectable total at Class A.
Ripken, 30, is in his absolute prime, but if Alexander keeps improving and stays healthy, the Orioles might -- repeat, might -- face a major decision at shortstop in two or three years.
"The kid has lots of tools, but the thing that impresses me most about him at this point is his sense of where the baseball is," says Frederick manager Wally Moon, a former major leaguer who does not normally gush over players.
"It's like court presence. He knows how the flow of the game igoing. It's more than anticipation. For his age, I think it's kind of extraordinary. When something unusual happens, he's always in the right place."
Roy Krasik, the Orioles' director of minor-league administrationrecalls seeing Alexander tag out a runner at third to complete a rundown, then fire to second -- without looking -- to nail the trail runner for a double play.
Moon marvels at the way Alexander saves runs by positioninhimself for balls that bounce off or over his third baseman. On the bases he'll round a bag to draw a throw, then advance when the ball misses its mark.
"A little bobble," Moon says, "and he's gone."
Best of all, Manny Motion loves to play. He even treats infielpractice with gusto. Krasik says when he was hurt last year, "we had to take a rope and tie him up." This year -- shades of Ripken -- he hasn't missed a game.
"The first thing that comes to my mind is his enthusiasm," says Mike Young, who was Alexander's manager his first two pro seasons, and is now a coach at Triple A Rochester.
"This is a young man who comes to the ballpark day in and day out just ecstatic with playing the game. He's not afraid to express his athletic ability. He lets it go, man. He goes out and plays hard."
Alexander was 16 when he signed with the Orioles as a non-drafted free agent in February 1988. "He was very small and spindly, but he had some pop to his bat even then," recalls Fred Uhlman Sr., a special assistant to general manager Roland Hemond.
With Uhlman's approval, Dominican scout Carlos Bernhardt completed the signing. Today Alexander jokingly refers to Bernhardt as "my father." The fourth of nine children, he often stays with Bernhardt in the winter.
Alexander lives only a few doors away from San Diego's Tony Fernandez in the shortstop hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris -- the town that also produced Juan Bell. He likes watching Ripken, but Fernandez, not surprisingly, is his favorite player.
His English is improving -- he takes 90-minute lessons three times a week -- and his attitude is just right. Ask Alexander how quickly he'd like to reach the majors, and he says with a smile, "Two years."
That's a year at each level (Double A and Triple A), and it's probably wishful thinking. Alexander, however, will force the issue starting next season. Hagerstown shortstop Rickey Gutierrez is batting .210 and might require another year at Double A.
Krasik says, "We'll have to look at it," and it's possible the club will ask Gutierrez to change positions. That, obviously, could foreshadow things to come, but Ripken needn't worry. If push came to shove, Alexander probably could play second.
Frankly, it's too early to know. Moon predicts only that Alexander will play in the major leagues. So much can happen, starting with injuries. For now, all the Orioles can do is enjoy.
Uhlman recalls the first time third base coach Cal Ripken Sr. saw Alexander play in the Instructional League. Club officials told Ripken they rated Alexander's arm a "60" -- with 50 being average.
Now, Ripken knows a good shortstop's arm when he sees one. He took one look at Alexander and immediately announced his own rating. "Sixty, hell," he cried. "That's a 70."