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From slappies to sluggers (cont.)

Posted: Friday July 27, 2007 1:59PM; Updated: Friday July 27, 2007 3:06PM
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Robin Yount
Hall of Famer Robin Yount was an immediate predecessor to Ripken in the pantheon of tall shortstops.
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That all changed with Cal Ripken Jr., who was immediately preceded by Robin Yount. Yount was in the big leagues at 18 in 1974. He was known for his speed, as a guy who hit singles, but in 1980 he came into his own as a power hitter, batting .293 with a.519 slugging percentage and 130 OPS-plus for the Brewers. Two years later, he slugged .578 as an integral member of the Harvey Wallbanger's team that won the AL pennant.

Which makes for a nice segue back to Ripken, who played his first full season in '82. Ripken, a pitcher and a shortstop when he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, was big -- 6-foot-4. He started his minor-league career as a shortstop but was converted to third. The team traded away a solid 30-year old third baseman in Doug DeCinces -- who had the misfortune of succeeding Brooks Robinson -- after the '81 season to make room for Ripken.

Bob Bonner came up with Ripken in '82 and was expected to play short. But while Bonner was a gifted fielder, he was an even worse hitter than Belanger had been. Ripken played third through June and was moved to short at the beginning of July. Though he struggled offensively at the start of the season, Ripken finished the year with 28 homers and 93 RBIs, good for Rookie of the Year honors. The following season, Ripken was a monster (.318/.371/.517, 144 OPS-plus), winning the MVP and leading his team to a World Series championship.

"Ripken opened people's eyes as to what a shortstop could be offensively," says historian Mike Carminati. "He also came at the right time, just when hiding poor offensive players at short and in center could no longer be hidden. Ripken became a star just before the offensive boom of the 1985-87 seasons. He was the tipping point."

Yet, as good as he was, it was expected that Ripken would soon return to third base, even though he set the American League record for assists (583) in 1984 and led the league in that category in '83, '86 and '87. After the '85 season, Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams wanted Ripken moved to third. But manager Earl Weaver wouldn't budge. "He's a great athlete. He's smart. He goes back on pop-ups better than anyone I've ever seen. He's the All-Star shortstop and not just because of his bat."

Ripken was the new prototype at short. He was even bigger than Yount and Dctroit's Alan Trammell. In 1984, Kansas City manager Dick Howser said, "Primarily, it's the power that sets Ripken apart, his ability to drive in runs, more than his defensive ability. Trammell is a shade better with the glove and Yount's speed gives him an edge, but offensively, there's no question it's Ripken. I'm sure all three of their managers are satisfied with their situations."

These three, followed by Cincinnati's Barry Larkin, set the stage for today's bigger, offensive-minded shortstops. (Unfortunately, Trammell has been overlooked by the Hall of Fame; let's hope Larkin fares better.) Alex Rodriguez, now a third baseman, of course, Jeter and Hanley Ramirez are 6-foot-3; Bobby Crosby and Hardy are 6-foot-2; Guillen, Young, Jhonny Peralta and Jose Reyes are all 6-foot-1. But even the small, compact shortstops such as Miguel Tejada (5-foot-10) and Jimmy Rollins (5-foot-8) can mash.

"My first guess would be that this represents a change in the game that we don't yet understand," says historian Bill James, who admits that he hasn't studied the issue in detail, "rather than just a random collection of shortstops."

Whether you see this as the natural evolution of the position or a return to the norm, one thing is for sure: The slugging shortstop is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

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