Saturday, May 31, 2014

Players I Love More Than I Should: Shortstop: Cal Ripken

More than 18,000 players have appeared in Major League Baseball games since the start of the league.  Some players have short careers that last one at bat or one appearance in the field.  Others have 20+ year careers.  As I read more and more about baseball history there are certain players I find myself enjoying reading about more than others.  It is obviously illogical since many of them retired, or in some cases passed away, long before I was even born.  I have no first hand experience in watching some of them play but for whatever reason their personalities and perseverance strikes me above and beyond the other players I read about.  Over the next few weeks I will be giving you short biographical histories*of some of these players.  Some of them will be Hall of Fame players.  Some of them will be players only casual fans may know.  Regardless, I chose one player from each position for this series to explore.  This week we will explore the Shortstop  I chose for the series.  For those of you who know me would be shocked if I chose anyone else: Cal Ripken, Jr.

A Baseball Family
Growing up the son of a celebrity can be a double edged sword.  There is trouble for some balancing the idea of the superstar on Television and read about in the papers against the actual person who is the parent.  Walt Disney told the story of his daughter looking at him funny one night and asking "Are you Walt Disney?"  He said "Of course I am, you know that."  His daughter asked again "but are you the Walt Disney?"

There is nothing fun about being the son of a minor league player and manager.  The pay is low, the conditions are bad, the travel is ridiculous, the time away from the family is seemingly endless and it is a long climb to the top.  You can't brag to your friends that my dad plays baseball for some team in the northwest that doesn't even get their box scores published in the local papers.

The Ripkens were a baseball family from day 1.  Cal Senior was a minor league catcher whose potential major league career was slowed when a separated shoulder was misdiagnosed and healed improperly.  Knowing nothing but baseball as his career Senior became a coach in the minor leagues and worked hard to eventually become a coach on the staff of Earl Weaver.  While Senior was coaching in the majors Junior was learning.  He observed everything.  While Senior was on the field Cal was in the locker room asking the players why they did things the way they did.  Why did they bunt here and not there?  Why did you take this pitch but not that one?  Junior had a million questions and no limit of people to ask. Frank Robinson.  Mark Belanger.  Boog Powell.  Paul Blair.  Jim Palmer.  They were all an immediate resource.

The Oriole Way
What he learned from all these players was "the Oriole Way" to play ball.  It was ingrained in him from the time he was young.  In trying to compete with the Yankees, the Orioles had to develop a strong farm system that could produce game ready players who could fit into the big league lineup immediately. It was an organization wide philosophy of the game.  How to operate a cut off play.  Where to stand if the throw is coming to third from the outfield.  How to direct the play.  Every possibility was accounted for.  Junior had learned it all the way and he loved the game of baseball.  Junior became a pitcher in his youth and was a highly touted High School Athlete.  He was scouted by several teams, including the Orioles.  Although the rumor was that Senior pressured the O's to draft Junior that was not the case.  Cal's mom would later say Senior "was away so much, so he hardly saw Cal play".  Senior was "surprised the scouts were seriously scouting Cal."  Cal Senior said "Before his high school graduation I told Vi, 'I believe our son is going to be drafted.'  With a smile she answered 'I'm glad you noticed.'"

Cal's professional indoctrination into the Oriole way began at Bluefield in West Virginia in the rookie league.  Cal had been drafted as a pitcher but the Orioles had the better idea of using him as a position player.  His first year in rookie ball he was moved to Shortstop.  In 63 games he made 33 errors and hit only .264 but in classic Ripken style he kept working on improving his skills.

He moved up to the Oriole's A Ball team in 1979 and played most of the season in Miami before finishing the season in AA Charlotte.  The problem with playing Shortstop in the Orioles minor league organization was that Mark Belanger was a living legend in the Orioles dynasty.  With the Orioles reaching the World Series in 1979 there was no immediate hope of big league playing time at Short Stop in Baltimore.  Cal started to see playing time at Third Base and he was doing just fine.

In 1980 he played the whole year in Charlotte and excelled, although his fielding was still a bit of an issue.  He made only 7 errors at short stop but 28 at third.  Cal knew he needed to work on this.  "I am still not satisfied with my fielding.  I am still making dumb errors."  Cal continued to develop and his manager, Jimmy Williams noticed.  Williams said Cal could "do everything but run" and that he was a "sure Major Leaguer".  He was moved up to Rochester in AAA for the 1981 season.  He would play in 114 games in Rochester, 85 of those at third.  It was clear the direction the team was taking with his career path.  It was felt that Third Base was the best choice for Cal because of his size and the success of Belanger.

1981 was an odd year in the Major Leagues with the strike leading to a split season.  The Orioles had not won the first half so they needed every available resource to make a run at the second half.  Cal was called up to the big league club and on August 10, 1981 Cal Ripken, Jr made his big league debut.  Considering Jimmy Williams said the one thing Cal couldn't do was run it is ironic that his first appearance in the big leagues was as a Pinch Runner for Ken Singleton, someone known for decent speed.  In the bottom of the 12th, after Singleton doubled, Cal jogged out to second base.  When John Lowenstein singled, Cal came around to score the winning run on a walk off win.  Welcome to the big leagues.  Cal played in a total of 23 games that year mostly at Shortstop and got plenty of experience.

With Belanger entrenched at Short, Cal would likely be the Third Baseman when he came up full time. The problem there was that Doug DeCinces was a fan favorite at third.  The fans were not necessarily happy that nepotism might push Doug out.  A controversy erupted in Baltimore. Could Cal play third and DeCinces left?  What did DeCinces think of all this?  DeCinces said he knew that Cal was a big league player and would have a successful career, although he was not quite ready to just hand over the hot corner just yet.  The Orioles made it official in January of 1982 by trading DeCinces  to the Angels.  Now Cal could relax.

The problem was Cal wasn't relaxed.  He started 1982 fine but he quickly fell into a slump.  The harder he worked the worse it got.  Eventually he got advice from an unexpected source.  Cal was struggling through another bad day against the Angels when Reggie Jackson ended up on third base.  Reggie, who had a reputation as a selfish player, told Cal "You look like you're fighting yourself.  Everybody is probably telling you to do this and do that.  So just know what you know you can do, not what everybody tells you to do.  Stick with what got you here."  Cal started to turn things around but not before a scary moment drove home the reality of how quickly a career can come and go.  He was  hit in the head by a Mike Moore fastball against the Mariners and was removed from the game.  The batting helmet was hit so hard that it left a hole in the helmet.  Cal sat out the next day, May 4.  He was back in the lineup on May 5 and he never looked back.  It would be years before he missed another inning and even longer before he would miss another game.

The Move, Rookie of the Year, MVP and a Ring
The traditional Shortstop is small, quick, a defensive expert and carries a weak or average bat.  Players like Ozzie Smith, Gary Templeton and Pee Wee Reese were the ideal Shortstops.  On July 1 Earl Weaver went against tradition.  He moved a tall, solid, slow footed third baseman to short.  Why the big deal over the size of the player?  It is the requirements of the position.  The middle infielder needs to be able to quickly range from left to right and cover a lot of ground to reach balls on either side.  They need to be nimble to turn a double play and get out of the way in time.  Cal Ripken was none of these things.  Earl Weaver didn't care. He wanted Cal Ripken as his Shortstop.  While Junior moved to short the Orioles used Floyd Rayford and Glenn Gulliver at Third Base.  The Orioles caught fire and started to chase down the division leading Brewers.  Led by Junior, Eddie Murray and Rick Dempsey the Orioles entered the final weekend of the year with four straight head to head against the Brewers.  If the Orioles won all four they won the division.  In Earl Weaver's final series before retirement the Orioles took the first three games.  They needed to win the final game.  They didn't and Milwaukee went on to their only World Series appearance.

Despite the early slump, controversy over the move to short and the disappointing end to the year, Junior won the Rookie of the Year award.  He received 94% of the first place votes beating out Kent Hrbek, Wade Boggs, Gary Gaetti, Von Hayes and Jesse Barfield among others.  Cal himself, humble as always, was a bit surprised.  "I was surprised by the margin.  Hrbek had a fabulous year and I got off to that slow start.  I thought I had a chance but I thought it would be close."  Twins owner Clark Griffith was outraged and called it a travesty that Hrbek wasn't the winner.

The Orioles had a new leader for 1983 in Joe Altobelli but the Oriole way continued.  Cal and Eddie Murray were the best 1-2 punch in baseball and the Orioles used the pitching combo of Mike Flannagan and Scott McGregor to win the AL East division.  In the process of reaching the playoffs Cal won the MVP award.  Again there was controversy in the decision.  Although it was clear he was one of the best in the league, many felt that Murray was the bigger driving force behind the success.  The numbers were comparable.  Cal had a higher average, more doubles and more runs.  Murray had more Home Runs and more RBI.  Either way the Orioles benefited from both players and Cal proved that he was a Major League Short stop despite the doubters.

The Orioles  took on the White Sox (in their first post season since AL Lopez led the go-go White Sox of 1959) in a heated ALCS often on the verge of breaking out into violence.  The normally calm Cal was hit by a pitch that he was sure Richard Dotson threw intentionally.  He yelled at Dotson "If that's all you've got you shouldn't throw at people."  Cal hit .400 in the four game series.  He drove in 1 run and scored 5 as the Orioles moved on to face the Phillies.  Cal had less success against Steve Carlton and John Denny and struggled at the plate with only a .167 average.  The star of the series was their Catcher, Rick Dempsey who had five hits in the series.  All five were extra base hits including one Home Run and the Orioles won the World Series in six games.

In Cal's first two full years in the league he had revolutionized the Short Stop position, become the first player ever to win a Rookie of the Year and follow that up with an MVP season and had won a World Series.  There was no reason to believe anything would be different.

The Terrible Years
As Cal entered the 1984 season the Orioles were riding high on the World Series win.  Everything had gone right in 1983.  The Orioles were considered one of the top organizations in baseball but behind the scenes there were major issues.  Despite Altobelli's success at the head of the team there was constant friction between Altobelli and owner Edgar Bennett Williams.  The Orioles lost their first 4 games and started 2-10.    By the end of 40 games they reached two games above .500.  The Tigers set the pace that year by starting  35-5 and they never looked back.  The team finished above .500 with a winning record but they were never really in the race.

The team prepared for the 1985 season by splashing into the free agent market and signing Fred Lynn, Don Aase and Lee Lacy.  It was a disaster.  The pitching was no longer strong. Murray and Ripken continued to excel but the minor league system was failing and Altobelli was gone before mid season.  He was replaced by Weaver who had the team a game above .500 the rest of the season but they were far out of the race.  1986 was no better and Weaver retired again at the end of the year.

1987 saw Cal Ripken Sr take over as manager but he took over a poor team. The team barely avoided losing 100 games and Williams promised everyone that Senior would be given a chance to manage a good team.  The promise didn't last long.  The O's lost their first six games of 1988 and Senior was replaced by Frank Robinson.  It didn't make a difference.  The team started 0-21 and the once proud organization was now a joke.  The end of the year saw Eddie Murray leave the team and Cal was the lone star on the team.

This period (1984-1988) is looked at as the darkest period of Orioles baseball but Cal had plenty of company in suffering.  Although Senior was no longer managing he was eventually brought back as a coach.  Also joining the Orioles family was Cal's brother Billy, starting in 1987.  The brothers made the first brothers double play combo but the family similarities were limited.  Given unrealistic expectations because of his brothers success Billy was viewed by some as a disappointment. Billy was a very good second baseman and good hitter but he was not Cal.  For whatever reason many in Baltimore judged Billy by Cal's standard which did not allow Billy to create his own standard.

1989 saw the Orioles flying high for most of the season in an almost complete turn around from the year before.  They spent most of the year in first place but faltered near the end and lost the division in the final weekend when Toronto passed the team.  Ripken had another very good year (and had help from young players like Craig Worthington, Brady Anderson, Randy Milligan and Sam Horn) but as the team faltered Cal's offense did as well and the blame was placed on Cal.  The year would start a new rivalry in the American League East as the Orioles and Blue Jays would fight back and forth for the next few years with the Blue Jays always coming out ahead.

Through all of this Cal continued to perform at a high level. He made the All Star team every season beginning in 1983.  He set records for most consecutive 20+ Home Run seasons by a short stop. He set a record for most consecutive errorless chances and most consecutive errorless games.  In fact in 1990 he made only three errors all year.  Still, his defense was overlooked. Despite the records he did not win his first Gold Glove until 1991.

Controversial MVP
Cal started the 1991 season on a hot streak.  Often a hot start to a season will fall off by the end of April.  Cal continued and by the All Star Break he was leading the league in most categories.  He would end the year with career highs in Home Runs, RBI and batting average and would win his second MVP.  The other MVP candidate was Cecil Fielder of the Tigers who had returned from a few years in Japan to hit 44 Home Runs and help the Tigers contend for the AL East title.  The Orioles, on the other hand, despite Cal's huge numbers ended near the bottom of the division.  Fielder was understandably frustrated.  He had hit 51 Home Runs the year before and was told he didn't win the MVP because he didn't play for a contender. His second year above 40 HR and he was beaten out for MVP by a player whose team never came close to contention.  It was disturbing to some.  The controversy led to debate over what the Most Valuable Player award meant.  Was it the best player of the year or was it the player who most helped his team win?  It is a debate that still rages.  Regardless the voting was in and Cal won his second MVP.

The Streak
Around the same time people started to notice that Cal had not taken a day off for quite some time.  He had already set a record for most consecutive innings played but that streak had been broken when Senior had replaced Cal in a game with Ron Washington breaking that streak.  Still, since the day he sat out following the beaning by Mike Moore in Seattle he had not missed another game.  In 1989 he passed Steve Garvey for third all time. In 1990 he passed Everett Scott for second all time.  The only name ahead was still years away.  Lou Gehrig's 2130 was the top number.

The focus on the streak came from external forces.  Cal just showed up every day ready to play.  As the years went on team mates and managers came and went.  Cal was the one continuing piece of the Orioles.  He kept showing up to play and the team started to turn around.  With young pitchers like Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Bob Milacki the Orioles started to improve.  They were not far out of first in 1994 when the league shut down.  The streak was in serious danger when the league threatened to use replacement players if the strike was not settled.  There was talk that Cal would be given special approval to cross the picket line.  He refused.  The league did not use replacement players for regular season games and the streak survived.

1995 was a tough time for baseball.  Fans were angry over the strike and many did not return to watch baseball but in late September of 1995 Ripken proved why this is a great game.  In playing in his 2131st consecutive game, the Orioles celebrated his achievement and Cal humbly celebrated his team mates and the game.

The Orioles continued to improve their team for 1996 bringing in players like Bobby Bonillia, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and David Wells.  The team made the playoffs as a Wild Card in 1996, their first appearance since the 1983 World Series team.  In the first round they shocked the Cleveland Indians and looked like an even match for the Yankees in the ALCS.  That was until a young boy named Jeffrey Maier changed the course of the series when he reached over the wall in center field and turned a fly ball out into a series changing Home Run.

The following year the Orioles came back with a vengeance.  The  team led the American League East from the very first day to the very last day and easily moved through Seattle in the ALDS.  Facing the Indians in the ALCS they looked set to move easily on to the World Series but when the Indians took games 2 and 3 in heartbreaking fashion the Orioles went home devastated.

The Retirement
After the 1997 season manager Davey Johnson had a dispute with owner Peter Angelos and decided he would rather manage the Dodgers than the Orioles and he left the team.  Though the team was not changed much the results were dramatically different.  The team struggled all year and major changes were in store for the next year.

Chris Hoiles, Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro were gone.  They were replaced with Will Clark, Delino Deshields, Charles Johnson and Albert Belle.  The team was a bigger disaster than the year before.  The team had gone from old to older and got no results.  It was clear that the team would need to rebuild.  Cal continued to play every day until the end of the 1998 season.  He sat out on September 20, 1998 ending a streak that had lasted 16 years.

Cal was still respected  as one of the greats of all time but with young shortstops like Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciapara in the game Cal was being looked on as a man past his prime.  Most of the league saw that Cal's 1982 move to shortstop and the success of Weaver's experiment had opened the door for the current generation of Short Stops.

Cal played through the 2000 season but back problems slowed his results.  He announced that 2001 would be his final year and when Tony Gwynn announced the same, the league paid tribute to two of the best players anyone had ever seen.  Both went out with respectable numbers in their final season but no where near the numbers they provided in their prime.

The Legend
Junior walked away from the game on October 6, 2001.  When all was said and done he had won a Rookie of the Year, two MVP awards, played in 19 All Star Games, won two Gold Glove awards and eight Silver Sluggers.  Cal finished his career with over  3000 hits and over 400 Home Runs.  In 2007, in his first year of eligibility, Calvin Edwin Ripken, Jr was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  He appeared on 98.5 % of the ballots.

*This is not intended as a full biography and due to space I have done my best to summarize the life of the players in this series.  For further information on Cal Ripken please check out:

Ken Burns Baseball
Baltimore Orioles Legends- Cal Ripken Jr Collectors Edition'
Major League Baseball Memorable Moments: 30 Most Memorable Moments in Baseball History


Extra Innings by Frank Robinson
Play Baseball the Ripken Way: The Complete Illustrated Guide to the Fundamentals  by Cal Ripken Jr, Billy Ripken and Larry Burke
The Only Way I Know by Cal Ripken
Oriole Magic:  The O's of 1983 by Thom Loverro
The Baltimore Orioles: Four Decades of Magic from 33rd Street to Camden Yards by Ted Patterson
Inside the Baseball Hall of Fame by National Baseball Hall of Fame
The National Baseball Hall of Fame Almanac (2013 Edition) by Baseball America

During his career Billy Ripken hit 20 Home Runs.  Cal hit 431 career Home Runs giving them a combined 451 Home Runs.  What brother combination holds the record for most Home Runs hit by brothers?

Answer to Last Week's Question:
Johnny Bench had a television show that aired in syndication for several years.  The show used Major League stars to teach the fundamentals of baseball to kids.  Guest stars included Pete Rose, Sparky Anderson and Ozzie Smith among many others.  The show was named "Baseball Bunch".


  1. Interesting info on Cal senior and his playing baseball career.
    I always thought the Orioles had the best run organization from the mid 60's thru the mid 90's.
    My guess on the trivia is Richie and Ron Allen,; my second guess is Joe and Dom DiMaggio.


  2. Did you ever get to see the Baseball Bunch? I'm curious. Never heard of it. Anyway, nice write up of what sounds like an all around good guy.


Have questions about something in this or a former post? Have a suggestion for a future post? Want more information on a specific team, player, season or game? I welcome the feedback, so feel free to leave a comment in the box or email me at baseballeras (at) gmail (dot) com.