Superb in their own right, shortstop Cal Ripken and second baseman Roberto Alomar are turning their double play of talent and knowledge of the game into a seamless combination

SECOND TO NONE

March 29, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The pairing of greatness is nothing new in this culture, but that hardly dulls the fascination for it. Fred Astaire danced alongside Gene Kelly, Paul Newman rode with Robert Redford, and Batman and Superman fought criminals together on Saturday mornings. What possibilities, with such talents merged.

Greatness comes together at Camden Yards this season. Cal Ripken, baseball's pre-eminent icon for his consecutive-games streak, will play with Roberto Alomar, an original in this sport because of the graceful and imaginative manner in which he plays defense. They will team side by side in the middle of the diamond, as the Orioles' double-play combination, Ripken the steady and sure-handed shortstop, Alomar the unique and brilliant second baseman.

"It's a can't-miss combination," said the Orioles' Bill Ripken, who knows the shortstop on a first-name basis and has a heightened appreciation for the second baseman, being one himself. "It's going to take some time for them to get used to each other, but that's not going to take a long time. Even now, when there are certain situations when they don't know what the other is going to do, they're still better than any other combo."

They have surprised each other this spring. Playing with the Toronto Blue Jays, Alomar watched Ripken from across the field and admired his devotion to positioning on defense, how he moved a step or two according to the ball-strike count and the pitch selection, how he usually wound up in the right place.

Considering Ripken's serious approach to playing shortstop, Alomar was sure Ripken would be ultra-serious on the field, total concentration, all business.

Alomar was wrong. "He has a lot of fun out there," Alomar said, "He talks on the field; he has fun. I'm not used to that. I played with Tony Fernandez [at short], and he's more of a quiet person. Garry Templeton was quiet. Cal is like me. I see a lot of me in him."

As the Orioles take the field, the infielders play football. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro is the quarterback, Ripken the wide receiver and Alomar the defensive back. Sometimes, Ripken reaches over Alomar for the touchdown, sometimes Alomar intercepts. The games within the game.

Alomar isn't exactly what Ripken thought, either. He knew the guy had incredible range and could throw, field grounders with a pop-up slide and flip the ball to first with his glove. But he didn't know the depth of Alomar's feel for the game. You see the physical side to his game, Ripken said. Everybody can see that.

"How he thinks about the game, how he prepares for the game, how he understands the situations," Ripken said, "that's the greatest thing I admire. He's taken all those tools and made them better, with his anticipation and understanding the game.

"He's very heady and very gutsy, and he'll take chances. When you put all that together, he's the total package."

Batman and Superman. Ripken and Alomar. What possibilities.

A blind date

Teaming with a new double-play partner can be like going out on a bad blind date -- except that you're usually stuck with your DP partner.

Maybe it's a communication problem, or perhaps there's just an unresolvable incompatibility. The shortstop likes doing things one way, the second baseman something completely different.

Of utmost importance, Bill Ripken said, is consistency. If the shortstop usually underhands the ball to second to start the double play, and then he suddenly fires a throw overhand, he could ruin the timing of his partner.

If the shortstop wants the ball thrown to his right side, better to ensure a faster transfer of the ball from glove to hand and a quicker throw to first, he doesn't want a throw coming at his left shoulder.

"If you get a little juggle in there, that might cost you a half a second or a second or two seconds," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson, a former Gold Glove second baseman. "When you've got the runner going down to first in four or 4 1/2 seconds, that mistake is probably going to cost you the double play."

Cal Ripken and Alomar have been working out these details during spring training, a process, Ripken said, that will be in a constant state of evolution. Cal Ripken likes catching the ball on the right side of his chest, and, Bill Ripken said, closer to his hip than his shoulder, because the shortstop throws from the side.

Alomar, Cal Ripken has learned, prefers taking throws from shortstop in three different manners, according to the situation. When you're close to Alomar and you're going to flip it underhand, Ripken said, you lead him a little bit, so he can take it coming across the bag. A hard-hit ball, then Ripken will throw overhand and over the bag. If a ball is hit into the shortstop hole, Alomar wants the ball to the back side of the bag, to give him a chance to avoid the runner and use second base as a shield.

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