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SECOND TO NONE 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

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.

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"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.

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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

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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.

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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.

The first time they played together in an All-Star Game, Ripken discovered that he and Alomar spoke the same language when they talked defense. An NL hitter Ripken never had seen would walk to the plate, and Ripken would yell over to Alomar: Know anything about how to play this guy?

And Alomar would yell back with very specific answers. He likes to pull the ball early in the count, then he'll go the other way with two strikes. ... And on and on, loads of information for shortstop who thrives on insight into hitters. Ripken never had to ask any follow-up questions. "It seemed like we were in sync," Ripken said.

"You ask him how he wants to play Mo Vaughn, and he says, 'This is how I want to play Mo Vaughn.' He moves toward first, and I bring B.J. [Surhoff, the third baseman] with me. We're all going to be on the same page."

The second baseman and the shortstop can make the other better, much in the same way fighter pilots flying in tandem make each other better, by providing protection on one wing. If Ripken thinks Joe Carter is going to pull a ball between short and third, he can take another step or two in that direction, knowing that Alomar is capable of covering the middle.

The strength of Ripken's defense is his almost inhuman consistency, his ability to handle every grounder and make every throw on target. "When I play with Cal," said Bill, "I know where the throw is going to be, and it is going to be in the same place every time. Period."

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This will be a comfort for Alomar, who often will catch the ball with his back and the back of his legs exposed to a runner intent on breaking up the double play.

But, Bill Ripken said, "It is tough to say either one of those guys is really going to make the other one better.

"If you look at it, Robbie is probably the best second baseman in the game today -- I don't think there's much argument in that -- and he may end up being the best of all time. And you could make a good argument Cal is the best shortstop who ever played the game."

The pairing of greatness, this summer, at a baseball park near you.

Two of a kind

* Roberto Alomar has won five Gold Gloves, Cal Ripken two.

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* Alomar set the AL record for consecutive errorless games at second base last season, his streak ending at 104. Ripken holds the major-league record for consecutive errorless games at shortstop, with 95, a streak that ended in 1990.

* Ripken begins this season with an errorless streak of 70 games.

* Ripken ranks third in lifetime fielding percentage at shortstop, behind Larry Bowa and Tony Fernandez.

* Ripken holds or shares 12 major-league fielding or AL fielding records.

Pub Date: 3/29/96


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