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TIME OF CHANGE HERE FOR RIPKEN, SMITH

Their names have become synonymous with their positions, as well as with the cities they play in. That is why the talk of change surrounding shortstops Cal Ripken Jr. and Ozzie Smith has sparked debate over where respect commanded by future Hall of Famers ends, and where the common good of their teams begins.

In Baltimore, where talk of the 35-year-old Ripken's decline in range, quickness and offensive production (.253, two home runs, 20 RBIs through 44 games) still is spoken only in whispers, new manager Davey Johnson is breaking the silence like cymbals in a cathedral.The Orioles, Johnson believes, need to learn whether 25-year-old Manny Alexander can be an everyday shortstop. Johnson has the backing of general manager Pat Gillick, who knows visiting scouts need to see Alexander play short if he is to be of the few tradable commodities for which Gillick can acquire pitching help.

So, with third baseman B.J. Surhoff on the disabled list with a sprained ankle, Johnson has prepared the world this week for a shift of Ripken back to his original position of third base. Ripken last played there nearly 2,200 games ago in 1982.

"I know he'll do whatever he can to help the team," Johnson told reporters in a pre-emptive media strike that surprised Ripken. "He's a team player."

Ripken found himself in a tough spot. Complain and he comes off as selfish. Bow and Johnson has won in his effort to treat Ripken like any other player. Take a day off to think it over . . . still out of the question.

"A player is a player and a manager is a manager," Ripken told reporters. "I think it would be really unfair if anybody pointed a finger at me and said I wasn't a team player. I challenge you to find one example that exists where I'm not a team player . . . As a rookie, I moved from third to short. And, who knows, if it happens that way, you just try to do the best you can."

Johnson, asked to assess his present relationship with Ripken, smiled and pointed to his wrist.

"He gave me this watch in spring training," Johnson said, "and he hasn't asked for it back yet."

In St. Louis, it's safe to say Smith won't be buying gifts anytime soon for manager Tony La Russa. Smith, who spent 20 days on the disabled list, has started just eight of the Cardinals' first 46 games, and has grown increasingly unhappy wasting his 19th major league season watching Royce Clayton play. A 30-minute meeting with La Russa this week failed to satisfy the 14-time All-Star.

"I guess they don't think I can play two games in a row," the 41-year-old Smith said. "I'm old. Fragile . . . I was told that there are fresher legs, if I understood it right."

So Smith suggested he is ready to take his 13 Gold Gloves and move somewhere he can play, perhaps back to San Diego. He played his first four seasons there before being traded to St. Louis for Garry Templeton in February 1982. The Padres are looking for better defense than Andujar Cedeno has shown, and Smith said he heard of unofficial interest from San Diego in the last three weeks.

"I'm listening," Smith said. "I'll listen to anybody."

Smith's $3 million salary would be more than the Padres are willing to assume. But the Cardinals, at La Russa's urging, might be willing to pick up much of that tab just to be rid of the headache the Smith-Clayton dilemma has caused since December. Clayton, 26, is batting .253 with 12 steals and five errors, and clearly is La Russa's choice for the position. Smith is hitting .286 (10-for-35) in his limited 12-game exposure.

"If you want to rate our best player so far," La Russa said, "our best two players have been Ray Lankford and Royce Clayton."

And for Ripken and Smith, it seems, the season of change has arrived.

STANDING O: To Atlanta Braves first baseman Fred McGriff, who last Sunday became the eighth active player and 71st overall to reach the 300-home run plateau.

McGriff, 32 and in his 11th full season, entered this weekend with 301 career homers. The only active players ahead of him are Eddie Murray (484), Andre Dawson (437), Joe Carter (337), Cal Ripken Jr. (329), Harold Baines (310), Jose Canseco (310) and Barry Bonds (309).

TO THE SHOWERS: With the Detroit Tigers' starting pitchers, a nine-man demolition squad that has combined for seven wins all year. That's two fewer than former Tigers' farmhand John Smoltz had by himself entering Friday's start for Atlanta.