The best infield ever?
Don't believe the hype.
Believe Tony La Russa.
"Oh man, I try not to exaggerate, but it would have to be tied for first in major-league history," the St. Louis manager said last night.
"You show me one better than that," La Russa shot back. "You show it to me. I don't think anyone can."
Rafael Palmeiro at first base, Roberto Alomar at second, Mike Bordick at shortstop, Cal Ripken at third.
La Russa -- Bordick's former manager in Oakland -- couldn't stop gushing about the Orioles' Fantastic Four.
"If I was a fan, I don't care how they pitch or how they hit, I'd pay to watch that infield," he said.
He paused, chuckling.
"I just signed on as the Orioles' PR guy, by the way."
So much for La Russa's reputation as a stone-faced mastermind.
He sounded as excited as any fan after learning that the Orioles had signed Bordick.
"I always said, 'Give proper deference to guys like [Carlton] Fisk, [Greg] Luzinski and [Harold] Baines, all the guys over the years who were really amazing outstanding players.' " La Russa said, listing three of his former stars with the Chicago White Sox."
"But my favorite player was Mike Bordick."
Why? Because Bordick is a rags-to-riches baseball story, an undrafted free agent with limited ability who transformed himself into one of the top defensive shortstops in baseball.
"I think he took his talent and went the farthest with it," La Russa said. "He made himself a real good player, a winning player. Fans in Baltimore who know baseball, they'll love him."
Fans in Baltimore who know baseball also love Ripken -- and love him as a shortstop. But La Russa, like many in baseball, believes Ripken also will be an outstanding third baseman.
"Somebody in that league is going to have to have an outstanding year to prevent Cal from winning the Gold Glove at third base," La Russa said. "He'll be a contender for the Gold Glove immediately."
La Russa wouldn't say it -- couldn't say it after spending last season in the National League -- but the Bordick signing is actually a plus for Ripken, a development that could prolong his career.
The Orioles' front office viewed Ripken as a shortstop in decline. Rather than face potential embarrassment as his skills diminished, he now will be hailed as the reincarnation of Brooks Robinson.
"It'll be so easy, it'll be ridiculous," La Russa said. "At third, it's a couple of steps and a dive. He has tremendous hands, a great, accurate throwing arm.
"The only adjustment -- and it will take a couple of weeks in spring training -- will be getting ready to see the ball. He's been away from it for a long time. But this guy is a super-talented player.
"In two weeks, he'll be comfortable there."
Heck, it took Ripken only two innings to make his first spectacular play when he played third for the first time in 14 years on July 15.
Paired with Bordick, he will give the Orioles their best left side of the infield since the glory years of Mark Belanger and Brooks Robinson.
Asked about Bordick, La Russa said, "You want an anecdote?" (( then launched into a long, detailed history of the shortstop's career in Oakland, which ran parallel to his own.
The A's signed Bordick out of the University of Maine on July 10, 1986, just three days after La Russa began managing the club.
La Russa still remembers the first scouting report he heard on Bordick a year later:
"Heady player. Good hands. Outside shot."
Bordick's Double-A manager, Tommie Reynolds, said much the same thing the next year, criticizing Bordick's tools, yet lauding his play at shortstop and second base.
The year after that, Bordick reported to spring training with the A's as a nonroster player.
The first time La Russa actually saw him on the field was before an exhibition game in New Orleans.
"He was taking ground balls at third and barely getting it to first," La Russa said. "I'm thinking, 'Man, with this guy's arm, he's a second baseman only.' "
But in 1991, Bordick joined the A's as the replacement for the injured Walt Weiss at shortstop.
He started out fine, but La Russa kept thinking back to his first impression.
In fact, he was so concerned Bordick couldn't make the throw from the hole in short on artificial turf, he planned to replace him with Scott Hemond -- a backup catcher -- during a series in Kansas City.
Bordick had a huge series, getting two or three hits each night, making every play in the field. He played second for the A's division champions in 1992, then moved to short full time in '93.
"All you've got to do is watch him play," La Russa said. "You'll fall in love with him."
Bordick is only 5 feet 11 and 175 pounds, but La Russa said he is so tough, "I've seen guys go into second base and annihilate him, and the next time he hangs in there."
It's better than his .258 lifetime average might indicate, La Russa said.
"He's a very tough out. He'll hit at least .250. He can hit .270. A lot of times when you need a big base hit, he'll give you his best at-bat. That's a heck of a quality to have."
La Russa couldn't stop talking.
About the Orioles' infield.
And mostly, about Bordick.
"You know how many jerks there are in this game?" he asked. "I get a chance to talk about him, I can't tell you how much fun I'm having. You're making my day."
The Orioles' new second-short-third combination of Roberto Alomar, Mike Bordick and Cal Ripken could rate a place among the top threesomes since the introduction of the Gold Glove awards in 1957 (number of Gold Glove awards in parentheses):
Team .. .. .. 2B .. .. .. .. .. SS .. .. .. .. .. 3B
Cards . .. .. T. Herr (1) .. .. O. Smith (13) ... T. Pendleton (3)
Cards . .. .. J. Javier . .. .. D. Maxvill (1) .. K. Boyer (6)
Cubs .. .. .. G. Beckert (1) .. D. Kessinger (2). R. Santo (5)
Orioles .. .. D. Johnson (3) .. L. Aparicio (9) . B. Robinson (16)
Orioles .. .. B. Grich (4) . .. M. Belanger (8) . B. Robinson (16)
Phillies . .. M. Trillo (3). .. L. Bowa (2) .. .. M. Schmidt (10)
Tigers ... .. L. Whitaker (3) . A. Trammell (4).. A. Rodriguez (1)
Yankees .. .. B. Richardson (5). T. Kubek .. . .. C. Boyer
Pub Date: 12/13/96