For Cal Ripken, playing defense is viewed in the same light as his streak of consecutive games played: both are taken for granted.
It's safe to say, however, that his endurance is generally appreciated far more than his skills in the field.
As the years mesh, the Baltimore Oriole shortstop's consistency becomes even more remarkable. Recently he played in his 1,118th consecutive game, passing Billy Williams for fourth place on the all-time list.
If he stays healthy, Ripken will surpass Steve Garvey's streak of 1,207 games and move into third place in mid-August. That would be a milestone worth noting because it would represent the longest streak in a half-century and come during baseball's year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's incredible string of 2,130 consecutive games.
But this isn't meant to point out Ripken's obvious durability. It is about his vastly overlooked defensive skills--and some subtle changes in the Orioles' pitching staff that have him on a pace that could obliterate some all-time baseball records, not club records.
While Ripken's body may be considered ironlike, he has never received a glove cast in gold. This could be the year that that oversight is corrected and that his defense is recognized as something more than the "other" part of his game.
If you don't think it's an oversight that Ripken has never been in the hunt for a Gold Glove symbolizing defensive excellence, consider the following:
--In each of the six seasons he has played the position full time, Ripken has led the American League either in assists, putouts or total chances. Included is a league-record 583 assists, in 1984.
The best may be yet to come. He is currently ranked No. 1 among AL shortstops this season with a .989 fielding percentage, but that doesn't even begin to tell the story. He also leads in assists (127) and total chances (179).
To put those figures into perspective, they average out to an amazing 686 assists and 967 total chances for a full season. That would constitute an all-time record for assists, 103 more than his own AL mark and 65 more than Ozzie Smith's National League record of 621 (1980).
The total-chance marks are 984 in the NL and 969 in the AL, both set in the early 1900s, when shortstops for some reason recorded about 25% more putouts than they do today.
Ripken has been aware of increased activity, not only at his position, but also throughout the infield. But he didn't realize how strong the pace was until he heard the figures.
"One big thing is that the pitchers, for the most part, have been much more predictable," Ripken said. "And we definitely have more ground-ball pitchers than we had in the past."
To Ripken, a pitcher's control affects the play of the infield. "If I know a pitch is going to be in a certain spot, it frees me up to cheat a little bit," he said. "Cheat might be a bad word to describe it, but if you know the ball isn't going to be hit to a certain spot, you can anticipate going the other way.
"Really, we're still in a learning stage," Ripken said, referring to the number of young Orioles pitchers. "There are still some things to learn about them--and the way hitters react to their pitches.
"Another factor (in the improved infield defense) is the familiarity of the infielders," said Ripken, who for the most part is now responsible for positioning everybody. "The defense is really a team concept; we move collectively. If I'm going to play somebody up the middle, I know Worthy (third baseman Craig Worthington) is going to protect me in the hole, and Bill (Ripken, or Rene Gonzales) can move the other way at second base.
"When we move, we move together. If we're wrong, we're all wrong."
Obviously, the infield has not been wrong too often. Worthington is second in the league in total chances, the Orioles' first base tandem of Jim Traber and Randy Milligan leads the league and if Bill Ripken has many more games like Monday night's (14 chances, the middle man on four double plays), the second baseman could be in the top three soon.
One person who is not only aware but also appreciative of the infield play is pitching coach Al Jackson. "We have a young staff," he said, "so we're going to have a lot of baserunners, and we have to rely on ground balls.
"It's something we've preached since the beginning of spring training. We've tried to make them aware that the defense is there, so we've got to use it, make stars out of them."
No matter how good the pitchers do their jobs, they won't make a star out of Cal Ripken. He took care of that a long time ago; but most of the recognition has come from his bat (23 to 28 home runs, 81 to 110 runs batted in every year).