Who's greatest in pecking order?

Tony Muser called it an impossible task. Terry Crowley wanted no part of it. Scott McGregor simply was appreciative for having such skilled players behind him, no matter who rated higher.

Will Cal Ripken be remembered as the greatest Oriole, putting him on top of an impressive list of candidates? If he's not the leader, who rises above him?

Maybe a better place to look is beside him. Ties are allowed in these debates, which brought contradictions and a few cop-outs.

Muser, the Kansas City Royals' manager who spent three seasons with the Orioles in the 1970s, came up with this gem while changing clothes in the visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards: "There were some pretty good players in the history of the franchise."

Nice try.

Names such as Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray most often surface when comparisons are made to Ripken's legacy in Baltimore. Brooks Robinson and Ripken forever will be linked for spending their entire careers with the Orioles. Frank Robinson is credited with teaching the club how to win and bringing the first world championship to Baltimore in 1966. Murray was a home-grown player who introduced his own style of leadership, along with 504 career home runs and the most RBIs (1,917) for a switch-hitter.

"I played with Brooksie for a couple years and he's still revered here, but Cal's No. 1 for what he's accomplished with this team and what he did during the '95 season following the strike," said Ken Singleton, an Oriole from 1975 to 1984. "Not only for the fans here, but for all of baseball. He's No. 1. There's no doubt in my mind.

"Cal's a great player, but he's a great person, too. Brooksie might have been a little more outgoing. Cal was more of a quiet leader. Everything he did, everyone wanted to follow his example."

So does that settle it?

"The greatest Oriole will always be Brooks Robinson," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, whose 33 years in the organization go unchallenged. "I was a catcher, but I marveled at Brooks."

Bold enough to go further, Hendricks added Frank Robinson, Ripken and Jim Palmer, in that order. "But if you're going just by today, it would be Cal and Eddie in the last 20 years or so," he said, jumbling the list.

"It's Cal because he spent his whole career here. But they haven't won since Eddie left, so I'd have to run him up there with Cal. You could flip a coin either way. When Frank left, there was a little down period and then here came Eddie in '77 and it picked up again until '83. He left shortly thereafter, and the [losing] records are there.

"Eddie was quiet but very powerful, very forceful. Cal is a lot like Brooks. I remember watching Cal as a kid sitting in the dugout, focused on Brooks and [Mark] Belanger working out. His eyes were glued to these guys. And I see the same work ethic in him. Not only did his dad teach him the right way, he also watched Brooks and Belanger."

Ripken always will be defined by The Streak, the run of consecutive games that eclipsed Lou Gehrig's and made him a legend in black and orange. Muser, who puts Ripken "very high on the list, near the top," hopes the record and a catchy nickname aren't all that people recall about baseball's Iron Man.

"You don't want to diminish The Streak," Muser said, "but if you investigate his other numbers, they're pretty good. Being the Iron Man is most prominent and tends to overshadow his numbers. He's had a hell of a career. He's hit big home runs, meaningful home runs. He's an example of how timing is everything. And they won't talk about his defense, either."

Lee May, a first baseman/designated hitter with the Orioles for six years and later their hitting coach, also wonders if 2,632 consecutive games have made Ripken's other feats more easily forgotten.

"He's got to be up there with Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, for all the contributions he made to the ballclub," said May, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' first base coach. "Not only was he the Iron Man of the ballclub, it was RBIs, home runs, his fielding. He did it all. It's got to be rewarding for a manager to know that every day, one guy's going to be in the lineup, and that's Cal. And even on his worst day, he's going to do something to win a ballgame, either with his glove or his bat or just being in there.

"It's a shame that everyone will just say that he played in however many consecutive games. But how many games did he win with his bat? How many times did he get his team off the field with a great play? He complemented the team. I think everybody kind of rallied around Cal."

Just as they did with Murray, who joins Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as the only players with at least 500 homers and 3,000 hits.

"Him and Eddie I put together," said McGregor, an Oriole for 13 seasons who got the final out in the 1983 World Series. "I was very fortunate to play on a team with Cal hitting third and Eddie hitting fourth, plus Singleton and all those guys. Cal and Eddie have done things that you just dream about.

"Brooksie was at the end of my career. I don't know those guys as well. But as far as me playing, there are no two guys I've ever seen before like Cal and Eddie, what those two guys would bring to the ballpark every day. To play on a team where you had those two guys who played all the time. Hurt? It didn't matter. They were just out there. What a leadership duo they were for the team. It made it real easy for me to win. Real easy."

If Brooks Robinson, winner of 16 Gold Gloves, and Ripken are connected by their years spent in the organization and enormous popularity among fans, Murray and Ripken are joined by their friendship and contributions to the Orioles' last world championship in '83, when they finished 1-2 in voting for the American League's Most Valuable Player.

"I played with two of the greatest, Cal and Eddie," said Royals third base coach Rich Dauer, a second baseman with the Orioles from 1976 through 1985. "Those two could do anything to help a team win, even if it was moving a runner over. They'd run through a wall, then go outside and take care of every fan. There can't be two any better."

Unless Palmer enters the discussion.

"The two guys you categorize are Brooks and Cal," said Palmer, who goes unchallenged among Orioles pitchers with 268 victories and three Cy Young awards. "As great as Frank was, he was here six years. The only two contenders as far as being No. 1 are Brooks and Cal, and they're from different eras. Today, there's more SportsCenter, it's more PR-oriented. Brooks wins the Most Valuable Player and does a Vitalis commercial, even though he's losing his hair. Maybe that says something about Brooks that he was able to do something like that, but the reality is that Cal's in a different era where they market players much better. Cal will long be remembered for what he's done both on and off the field, probably a little bit more so than Brooks.

"Frank Robinson was the Michael Jordan of this organization. When he came here, he made everybody a better player. When Cal got here in '81, Eddie Murray was the best player on this ballclub. But Cal's local, Cal's from Maryland. Fans can relate to him."

Frank Robinson's limited tenure in Baltimore hurts his chances of being known as the greatest Oriole, though he's widely regarded as the best player to wear the team's uniform.

"I don't know about that," said Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, going against popular opinion. "You've got Brooks and you've got Ripken. Who else are you going to have? And who broke Lou Gehrig's record? You have stats and longevity. Frank was Most Valuable Player in both leagues. Could Rip have done it? Could Brooks have done it? They didn't have a chance. But Frank did that, so we've got some great players in Baltimore. There's a great tradition."

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