Alexander seconds Orioles' point of view

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Manager Phil Regan says he can one day envision Manny Alexander playing shortstop for the Orioles, but he'll learn.

Alexander is finally turning the double play, and it might prove the turning point of his career.

His future with the Orioles is at second base, not shortstop.

Cal Ripken turns 35 in August, but Alexander knows better than to expect him to grow old or move to third base.

"I won't say never," he said, "but I know for right now, I won't be playing shortstop for a long time."

Go to second, young man.

Second, a position constantly in flux with the Orioles.

Second, a position that could be Alexander's before the season is over.

Regan is not ruling out the possibility of Alexander's unseating Bret Barberie. He loves Alexander's tools and his new-found willingness to learn at second.

Indeed, if any doubts remained about the Orioles' intentions, they were erased yesterday in the club's first exhibition game, a 6-5 victory over Johnny Oates and the hated Texas Rangers.

Alexander ran for Barberie in the sixth inning, moved to second and went 1-for-1.

Meanwhile, the replacement for Ripken was Eddie Martinez, an 18-year-old Dominican shortstop making his first appearance in the United States.

"He's got good aptitude -- that's important," bench coach Steve Boros said of Alexander. "He's a good student. You don't find that in everyone.

"I didn't realize he had the snap in his bat that he does. He's got some hitting ability, some bat speed.

"He's a very interesting player. I'm glad we've got him. I hope we don't let him get away."

It won't happen. It can't happen. The Orioles refused to trade Alexander when his value was highest. The question now is what to do with him.

The immediate answer is simple -- Alexander, 24, is out of minor-league options, and will open the season as a utility infielder.

After that, who knows?

If Barberie proves a solid player, Alexander probably would spend this season and next on the bench.

But if Barberie is a bust, Alexander could become the Orioles' fifth starting second baseman in five years.

Those are the most realistic scenarios.

There are others.

If Leo Gomez has a poor season, the Orioles could ask Ripken to move to third and try Alexander at short.

And if Ripken loses his mobility at short . . . ah, forget it.

"I'd like to play shortstop as long as I can," Ripken said. "If there's some question whether I'm able to play shortstop and it becomes an issue, you deal with it at that time. I don't think it has come to that point. Who knows when it will be time?"

Uh, no one.

Ripken has played in 2,009 consecutive games, the last 1,982 at shortstop. That's one thing he already has over Lou Gehrig -- the most consecutive games at one position in baseball history.

Is it important for him to set the record at short?

"The streak has nothing to do with it," Ripken said.

Ripken is a 12-year All-Star at short. He might be losing a step, but last season was one of his healthiest. The longer he plays, the more he learns. And the more he learns, the better his positioning.

"In a lot of ways, I think I'm a much better shortstop than I was," Ripken said. "Experience plays a part. As long as you keep your physical talent, your experience and longevity really lends itself to playing better."

Does this sound like a man ready to change positions?

The day Ripken signed his five-year contract, his agent, Ron Shapiro, said Ripken wanted to remain at short through 1997, the year the deal expires.

That's three more seasons, at which point Ripken would be 38. He might need to move before then. Then again, he might not.

"I think he'll know when it's going to be," Regan said. "He's such an intelligent player. He has such pride in his performance, the way he plays the game.

"It might not be this year. It might not be next year. But I would bet there will come a time when he says, 'Maybe I ought to go to third base.' "

This century, or the next?

Ripken's philosophy on remaining at short is not much different from his philosophy on ending the streak -- he'd do it if someone can convince him it's best for the team.

The only way to make that argument is if his physical skills go into sudden decline. Otherwise, you don't move a future Hall of Famer to make way for an unproven player -- see Juan Bell, in the spring of '89.

Alexander is unproven.

But he's no Bell.

"I saw him play shortstop in the Dominican," Regan said. "He can play shortstop. I saw him next to [Jose] Vizcaino. The game I saw, he outplayed him. And Vizcaino plays shortstop in the big leagues."

Alexander's on-base percentage was an abysmal .278 last season, but two of his tools are outstanding: the speed that enabled him to steal 30 bases at Rochester and the arm Boros describes as "plus-plus."

Both those skills could serve him at second as well. Alexander resisted the move last season, but he worked in the Dominican this winter with Mariano Duncan, another converted shortstop. He's embracing the position now.

"I kind of thought last year, when they said, 'He can't play second base,' I wondered how much we really worked with him there," Regan said. "He's picked up things very quickly. Last year, I don't know if they spent the time with him.

"I know this -- he didn't know how to come across the bag or step back [on a double play]. It was all foreign to him until the other day. I think he's happy he's getting instruction. And I've told him what he's going to do: 'If you're going to make our ballclub, you're going to play second base.' "

It's all sinking in with Alexander, in a way it never did last season. Minor-league instructor Bobby Dickerson worked with him at second, but the experiment was a disaster, in large part because Alexander still wanted to play short.

"I don't think his heart was in it," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "He'd never say, 'I'll be the best I can be.' He would still always say, 'I'm a shortstop.' "

Then again, Dickerson didn't speak Spanish (Regan does), and Alexander missed the first month after having a cyst removed from his left thigh during spring training. He made the move shortly after the season began, and had virtually no time to prepare.

By July 23, he was back at shortstop. He made 14 errors in 47 games at second, and batted only .220. His average after returning to short was .317.

Now, Alexander understands that the move was in his best interests. He's also taking grounders at third this spring. Duncan, his mentor in the Dominican, is an example of a player who used versatility to his advantage.

"I know who the guy in front of me is," Alexander said. "I feel like I have to do it. I have to wait."

The wait might be forever.

( Go to second, young man.

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