``Better?'' Alomar wondered. ``How much better we gonna get?''
Hmmmm. Good point. How much better can they get? They already own a combined seven Gold Gloves. They already have made a combined 19 all-star teams - and have started 16 times for those teams.
Before Alomar arrived, Ripken was already, in his own way, baseball's ultimate shortstop. And before he was paired with this living legend at short, Alomar was already, in every way, baseball's definitive second baseman.
True, they had never played together before, except in all those All-Star Games. Ripken, 35, had spent every second of his career as an Oriole. Alomar, 28, had spent the last five seasons in Toronto and three before that in San Diego.
So now, after the Orioles laid that seductive three-year, $18 million offer in front of Alomar last winter and he said yes, how exactly are they supposed to make each other better? How, exactly, is that possible?
``Oh, it can be done,'' said Tony La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. ``Scotty Pippen makes Michael Jordan better. Jordan makes Pippen better. You see that in all sports. Michael Irvin makes Troy Aikman better. Absolutely, it can be done.''
Well, if indeed it can be done, it can be done by these two men - Calvin E. Ripken Jr. and Roberto Velasquez Alomar. After all, they have done just about everything else there is to do at their positions.
Ripken holds 12 major-league or American League defensive records at shortstop. Alomar has won five straight Gold Gloves at second.
Ripken owns the big-league record for consecutive errorless games by a shortstop (95). Alomar owns the American League record for consecutive errorless games by a second baseman (104). Last season, the two of them combined made 11 errors.
So what more can they possibly do together? Well, they always can elevate the double play to a whole new level of art form.
Anyone who watched Larry Bowa and Manny Trillo turn the double play in Philadelphia from 1979 to '81 knows that, at its finest, the double play is baseball's version of Aikman to Irvin or of Pippen to Jordan. Ripken and Alomar can't hook up on a down-and-out or run the fastbreak, but they can feed off each other to turn double plays unlike any ever created.
``Robby - he's like Baryshnikov out there,'' Orioles infielder Jeff Huson said. ``Really. He's the Mikhail Baryshnikov of infielders. And Cal - he's like Tommy Tune. He's the standard by which everybody else is measured.''
So if one guy is Baryshnikov and the other guy is Tommy Tune, what can they be together?
``Torville and Dean,'' Huson replied.
Or in other words:
The best . . .
How do you go about deciding the best double-play combination of all time? Numbers? Opinions? Memories?
In the Hall of Fame, there are only three double-play combinations that played together for any extended period, according to Jeff Idelson, the Hall's director of public relations.
The last to enter was the Brooklyn Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson, who hooked up in the '40s and '50s. Before that came the Boston Red Sox' Joe Cronin and Bobby Doerr, who teamed up in the '40s. Before that, there were Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers of the early-20th-century Chicago Cubs.
But how do you compare two mega-stars from the free-agent era, brought together by dollars and timing, to those duos - creatures of other times and places?
``Those guys played together 10, 15 years,'' said Bowa, the ultimate Phillies shortstop. ``With Ripken and Alomar, they won't be able to play together long enough to evaluate them like that. I mean, how many more years does Ripken have left - maybe two or three?
``But for knowledge and ability and for what they've accomplished already, then there's no question. You don't get guys like this working together very often.''
Tinker and Evers are the stuff of myth, but they were hardly the offensive forces that Ripken and Alomar are. And as special as the Reese-Robinson and Cronin-Doerr combos were, did they really bring the total package to the table that Ripken and Alomar do?
Let us not forget that for all their defensive brilliance, Ripken and Alomar are familiar with the woodworking portion of the game, too. Ripken has hit more home runs (319) than any other shortstop in history. Alomar has batted .300 four years in a row and has more hits (1,329) than any player his age or younger in either league.
But there is another side to these two men that divides them from everyone else. It is a side that comes from being the sons of baseball men. Their careers are a testament to the fact that Cal, the son of Cal Sr., and Roberto, the son of Sandy Sr., grew up in a baseball universe. They lead the league in instinct and feel. They are, La Russa said, ``the two most intelligent players in the league.''
``When you look at Robby,'' Ripken said, ``it's obvious he's very talented offensively. And it's very obvious he has tremendous skills defensively. You can see all that.
``But the thing that impresses me most about him is knowledge of the game, positioning, the intangibles he brings to the club, all the things that come from being around the game for so long. He's a very special player.''
Of course, people have been uttering those same kinds of words about Ripken for years. Yet, for all their similarities, these two gifted players approach the game with utterly different styles.
Ripken is almost machine-like in his precision, his consistency, his textbook correctness. Alomar is almost Jordan-like in his never-ending creativity and acrobatic ability.
Now they are about to mesh into a combination of untold possibility. So where is all this leading? Can they really get . . .
What can they bring to each other that neither had before?
Well, Ripken concedes that he is envious of Alomar's astounding physical skills - and knows he can never match them.
``I wish I had his quickness,'' Ripken said. ``His legs. His range. Robby might field as many balls on my side of second base as his.''
Alomar, on the other hand, knows Ripken has done things he will never do.
``What am I going to do - play 2,000 games in a row?'' Alomar said with proper awe. ``I'm not going to do that.''
Maybe Alomar will energize Ripken in some subtle way. And maybe, Bowa suggested, being around Ripken will cause Alomar to tone down ``that little flair about him,'' the way being around Bowa toned down the flashy Trillo.
But can they really make each other better? Really?
``It's hard to get better,'' Bowa observed with perfect, simple eloquence, ``when you're already the best.''