№35: Cal Ripken

Before Cal Ripken came along, there had never been a 6-foot-4 shortstop who played with any regularity in the Major Leagues. There had been a few tall shortstops through the years — Bill Almon, Ron Hansen, Tony Kubek, Roy Smalley Jr. (who was the father of the Roy Smalley who played in the 1970s) — but none of them was 6-foot-4. More to the point, none of them was built like Ripken. They were tall (as tall as 6-foot-3) but relatively slender, seemingly light on their feet. Ripken, meanwhile, looked more like a 1970s college fullback.

This might be hard to believe, but before Ripken came along, there had only been 17 everyday players in major league history (minimum 3,000 plate appearances) who were 6-foot-4 and weighed at least 200 pounds. None were shortstops. None were second basemen. None were third basemen. You look at the list of 17, and about half were big hulking power hitters without a position (Frank Howard, Dave Kingman, Ken Singleton, Dick Stuart, etc.). There are a few great athletes in there who played outfield (Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, Donn Clendenon, Johnny Lindell) and a few people who could hold their own at first base or behind the plate.

In other words, Cal Ripken was a whole new kind of baseball player. He was way too big to play short. He was a sluggish runner; in his career, Ripken got caught stealing more often than he was successful. and he grounded into more double plays (350) than any player in baseball history.

It took the mad genius of Earl Weaver to see a future for this guy at shortstop. Ripken had always been a third baseman. In 1981 and early 1982, when Ripken came to the big leagues, he was a third baseman. But Weaver was aching to move the kid to shortstop. No one in the organization agreed with him — not one person. But 1982 was Weaver’s last year as manager, and he didn’t give a $*$%* what anyone thought even before he became a lame duck. On July 2, he put Ripken at shortstop to stay. For once in his $*%%&$# life, Earl Weaver wanted to have a $&#$* shortstop who could $&%&$ hit.

“I liked the way he’s handled himself,” Weaver said after a couple of weeks. “It’s way too early to compare them but the way he moves around reminds me or Marty Marion.”

It’s always fun when someone says that it’s way too early to do something … and then does that very thing.

The early reports about Ripken’s defense at shortstop included such bland and unfulfilling words as “solid” and “capable” and “adequate.” Even Ripken himself would say, “I think I’m a better third baseman.” This, I think, is how it goes for pioneers. People can only see so clearly past their own expectations and preconceived ideas. Ripken, from the start, was perceived to be a good hitter who might hold his own at shortstop. And so that’s how people saw him. At best in those early days, he was labeled “surprisingly good.”

It was easy to miss that Cal Ripken would become one of the greatest defensive shortstops in the history of baseball.

How good was he defensively? We can throw out a few numbers as a starting point. Ripken led American League shortstops in assists seven times and in putouts six times. To contrast, Ozzie Smith led the league in assists eight times and in putouts twice. There’s defensive WAR to ponder — Ripken’s defensive WAR at shortstop is third behind the Wizard and Mark Belanger, the two players most consider the greatest defensive shortstops since at least World War II (with Andrelton Simmons closing fast).

But Ripken didn’t get credit for being that good. He only won two Gold Gloves, and they were later in his fabulous career when coaches and managers like to give out Gold Gloves like lifetime achievement Oscars (though Ripken was still a great defensive shortstop when he won those awards). Ripken didn’t get that credit because he had, more or less, invented a new way of playing great shortstop. He played deep to give himself slightly more time, and because he was utterly in sync with the pitcher, he was a genius at positioning himself.

People missed something else about Ripken: He had the greatest shortstop arm of his time. They missed it because Ripken didn’t rear back and fire the ball across the infield the way, say, Shawon Dunston did. Dunston had a bazooka of an arm, no question about it, and everyone talked about his arm while no one talked about Ripken’s. But I would bet you that Ripken got the ball to first base much quicker than Dunston did because Dunston would wind up and throw a 95-mph fastball across the infield. Ripken would catch and throw in one motion, the Aaron Rodgers, Steph Curry quick release, and the ball still had some heat on it.

The running back Eric Dickerson never looked as fast as he really was because of the way he ran. There’s a famous story where Rams coach John Robinson was getting on Dickerson’s case for not running hard, and Dickerson said, “Coach, I’m running as fast as I can go. Don’t believe me, send someone out there to try and catch me.” Robinson did. The guy couldn’t catch Dickerson.

And that, I think, also describes Ripken’s defense. He never LOOKED great. He just was great.

Between 1982–1991, Ripken posted a 127 OPS+ and averaged 34 doubles, 26 homers, 97 runs and 94 RBIs per season. These were crazy numbers for a shortstop. The only two previous shortstops who had posted those numbers for even ONE season were Ernie Banks and Vern Stephens back in the 1950s. Ripken posted them for 10. He was a Hall of Famer by age 31.

After that, well, he was barely an average hitter the last 10 years of his career, but he lasted long enough to get 3,000 hits and 400 homers and so on. He got the consecutive games streak record, of course. He also survived long enough to take that grounded-into-double-plays record from Henry Aaron.

* * *

A few words about Cal Ripken’s final year. That was 2001. People have strong feelings about how athletes go out. These days, the talk is about Kob Bryant. You hear people all the time saying it is sad to see one of the greatest players in the history of the league chuck up and clank bad shots for a dreadful team.

And I guess my question: Sad for who? Yes, of course, we never like seeing our athletes grow old. But why is Kobe Bryant out there? Is it for the money? Maybe it is, and it’s a lot of money.

But maybe it is something else driving him. Maybe he just loves playing basketball so much that he wants to play until he cannot play any longer. Is that sad? He knows how far his game has fallen. He sees the faces of people in the crowd. He hears a new kind of cheers, a kind filled with pity and remorse and nostalgia. For a guy who would walk into opponents arenas like an angry gunslinger ready to shoot the first guy who mouthed off, those cheers must sound wildly off key.

But still he plays, he endeavors, he strives, and maybe that’s not sad. Maybe it’s something else.

That something else was the feeling I had watching Ripken play his last year. He couldn’t play anymore. He posted a 70 OPS+. He had long faded away from shortstop. By WAR, he was a sub-replacement level player. And his Orioles were abysmal.

But every night, the game would end, and Ripken would go to the crowd, and he would sign autographs for as long as he could stand out there. I watched him in Kansas City. I watched him in New York. I watched him in Baltimore too. He would sign autographs and talk to fans and, though he didn’t say the words “Thank you,” well, he did not have to say them. His presence was his thank you. And the fans waiting, they did yell “thank you” right back.

And I thought: This isn’t sad at all. It can be sad when their career gets cut short. It can be sad when they leave too soon and then regret it so much they try to come back. It can be sad when they end up a bit player far from the city where they played their best.

But as Cal Ripken ran up the dugout stairs to play baseball, as he played baseball as well as he could for a 40-year-old man who would play 3,000 major league baseball games, as he signed all those autographs one after another after another, I felt the opposite of sad. I felt happy that Cal Ripken got to spend his career sharing his talent, giving us memories, living the life he wanted. And he played ball until the sun set.