Work in Sports
SI Flashback: Born To Play
Ripken knew early on he would be a ballplayer, but he had to prove he could play shortstop
By Tom Verducci
Issue date: Cal Ripken Jr. Special Collector's Edition 1995
Cal Ripken Jr. was born to play shortstop, the same way Itzhak Perlman was born to make a Stradivarius sing. It is difficult to imagine it any other way, after all these years of Ripken (without the slightest respite) playing the position with such feel--that phenomenal intersection of extraordinary skill and intuition.
Yet consider this line out of the 1978 amateur baseball draft list: 48. Calvin Ripken, p, Aberdeen, Md. Cal? A pitcher? Picture Perlman puffing on a tuba.
Every major league team projected the 17-year-old Ripken as a pitcher. "Didn't hit or run," one club's scouting report read.
"Everyone said that if they drafted me, it would be as a pitcher," Ripken says. "I didn't know how to feel about that. It was nice to know there was strong interest in me, but I thought I had enough talent to be a regular player."
Eight shortstops were among the 47 players selected ahead of Ripken: Hubie Brooks (Mets), Glenn Franklin (Expos), Phil Lansford (Indians), Lenny Faedo (Twins), Nick Esasky (Reds), Rex Hudler (Yankees), Buddy Biancalana (Royals) and, on the 47th pick, Clay Smith (Dodgers). Finally, the Orioles, using their fourth pick in the draft -- compensation for losing free-agent pitcher Dick Drago to the Red Sox -- took Ripken. The Orioles eventually designated Ripken a third baseman, but only after vigorous internal debate about putting him on the mound.
"It might have turned out different if any other team had taken me," Ripken says. "I probably would have gone ahead and been a pitcher."
Imagine that. One of the greatest hitting shortstops of all time might never have had an at bat. And the Streak? The Iron Man might have played once every five days.
"Let me tell you," says Earl Weaver, who was Ripken's first manager in the big leagues, "he would have been a successful major league pitcher. He had a great arm."
Once the Orioles decided to give him a shot as an everyday player, Ripken did little at first to impress them as a power-hitting infielder: In his first 693 professional at bats, he hit only eight home runs. As a shortstop prospect he was ranked for two years in the Baltimore organization behind someone named Bob Bonner, and when Ripken was first promoted to the big leagues, it was merely to replace a utilityman, Wayne Krenchicki. After joining the Orioles, Ripken had 12 hits in 99 at bats -- a .121 start-up.
A good athlete? Sure, everyone knew that. A shortstop who would play every game for more than 13 years? "Nobody could have told you that," Weaver says. "I don't know how Lou Gehrig did it. It's easier to buy a $1 lottery ticket and hit it big than do that. It's easier to spot a UFO than to do what Cal's done."
Ripken started out in Little League as a catcher, a position his father, Cal Sr., was playing in the minor leagues when Ripken was born in 1960. "I was copying my dad," he says. "He never pushed me, but I think he wanted me to be a catcher. It was O.K. back there, but I liked pitching and playing the infield better.... From eight or nine on, I knew sports were my life. The teachers would say, 'Write down what you want to be,' and by 11 or 12 I had narrowed it to baseball."
The making of this virtuoso ballplayer began around age eight, when his father, then a manager in the Baltimore farm system, asked Cal Jr. if he wanted to go to work with him. The boy said yes, mostly because he figured the ride back and forth to the ballpark would at least assure him of some time with his dad.
He started questioning Oriole prospects such as Doug DeCinces about fundamentals of the game. Then he would run the answer past his father. "My dad was always the final authority," Ripken says, "and if he told me the guy gave me correct information, I knew I could go back to that player."
By 12, Cal Jr. was taking pregame infield and batting practice with his father's Double A Asheville (N.C.) team. He would watch games from behind the backstop to learn what pitchers were throwing. And then, after the fans and players and reporters were long gone, he would linger on the floor of his father's office, his back against a concrete wall, and ask his dad questions about what had happened in the game and why.
"By the time I was ready [to turn pro], I knew the proper way to do things," Cal says. "I knew the Oriole way. I'd known how they did it since I was little. Nobody had to tell me what the Oriole cutoff play was. When I was a kid, I had the luxury of going to ask a Doug DeCinces or an Al Bumbry how to do things. What other kid gets the chance to go to players of that caliber?"
When he entered Aberdeen High, Cal stood only 5'7" and weighed just 128 pounds. He grew about an inch the next year, then began to sprout as a junior. By 16, he was not only sometimes taking batting practice at Memorial Stadium with the Orioles -- Cal Sr. by then was a Baltimore coach -- but also "he was hitting them in the bleachers," Weaver says.
By his senior year Ripken was 6'2" and 180 pounds. He batted .492 that year, though he drew more attention for his pitching. Ripken was 7-2 with a 0.70 ERA while striking out 100 batters in 60 innings, and he struck out 17 batters while throwing a two-hitter to win the Maryland Class A championship game.
Texas Ranger scout Joe Branzell later noted, "I never saw him play the infield. Looking back, I realize that he pitched every big game." Branzell filed a report that said Ripken was a "little short on fastball velocity" but still invited comparisons to Jim Palmer.
Another underwhelmed scout, Walter Youse (who had once scouted Cal Sr. for Baltimore), remembered that "I saw him pitch once and got him only at 81 [mph]. He got high school hitters out with curveballs, and he didn't hit or run."
About a week before the 1978 draft, the Orioles invited Ripken to a private tryout at Memorial Stadium. Scout Dick Bowie figured that Ripken's workload as a schoolboy pitcher and shortstop had undermined his arm strength. By waiting until after Ripken's season had ended, he reasoned, Baltimore could get a truer read on the kid's ability.
Bowie and four other Oriole scouts were on hand to watch. "When you get finished," director of player development Clyde Kluttz told Bowie, "come up to the office and tell me whether he's going to be a position player or a pitcher."
The Orioles still weren't certain even after they drafted him, when Bowie gave a somewhat lukewarm endorsement, saying, "Everybody likes him as a pitcher. But I think he can play infield in the big leagues, and I'm not sure he can't play shortstop."
Cal Sr. was on a road trip with the Orioles in California when his wife, Vi, called and told him their son had been drafted by Baltimore. Scouting director Tom Giordano later asked Cal Sr., "What do you want to do?"
Replied the father, "It's not what I want to do. It's what Cal wants to do." And Cal Jr. wanted to play every day, a preference his father eventually conveyed to the front office. "I think maybe it was my dad's opinion that made the difference," Cal Jr. says. "And Earl Weaver's opinion, because he had seen me take batting practice. My father's thinking was, if you pitch first and don't make it or get hurt, it's difficult to make it as a regular player after that because you're not developing as a player over those years. Whereas if you're a regular player and you don't make it that way, you can always go back to being a pitcher."
Still, the Orioles did not project him as a shortstop. Hank Peters, then the Baltimore general manager, once recalled, "We didn't think that would be his position as a pro. Our staff thought third base would be his best position in the long run." The Orioles sent Cal Jr. to their Rookie League team in Bluefield (W.Va.), where he joined Bonner, 21, a polished former college shortstop and a third-round pick in the same draft in which Ripken was taken.
"I remember I watched him take ground balls one day, and I figured, I'll never play here," Ripken says. "But they immediately moved him to Double A, and I played mostly shortstop."
Ripken hit .264 in his first pro season without a home run in 239 at bats. He improved to .303 at Class A Miami the next year, 1979, and earned a late-season promotion to Double A Charlotte. It was as a third baseman at Charlotte in 1980 that he had his breakout year: .276 with 25 home runs and 78 RBIs. It was also the season in which Ripken cemented his unflagging work ethic.
"The first time I can really remember wanting to play every game was in Double A," he says. "Jimmy Williams was the manager, and he was a lot like my dad was when he managed in the minor leagues. He liked to give players a couple of days off in a row to keep them fresh." Williams came to Ripken late in that season with an offer of some time off.
"There was a decision to be made," Ripken says, "and the choice was mine. I wanted to play all 140 games."
That same year, 1980, the Orioles finished in second place with 100 victories despite low production from their shortstops: Kiko Garcia, who batted .199, and Mark Belanger, who hit .228. People started talking about the impending arrival of Baltimore's future left side of the infield. For years to come, they said, it would be Bonner at shortstop and Ripken at third.
When Ripken was sent to Triple A Rochester during spring training of 1981, Weaver said to him, "See you soon." On Aug. 8, the first game after the end of a 50-day player strike, Ripken was called up to Baltimore. With Belanger still at shortstop and DeCinces at third, Weaver trumpeted the kid's arrival by saying, "My immediate plans are to use Ripken the same as I did Krenchicki." He meant it. Ripken received only 39 at bats and batted .128.
By the end of the following January, Belanger (a free agent who signed with the Dodgers) and DeCinces (traded to the Angels for outfielder Dan Ford) were gone. Ripken would play third base. Explained Weaver later, "The consensus was that he wouldn't go as a shortstop -- I think they figured it might hurt his hitting and put added pressure on him."
Ripken hit a home run in his first plate appearance while going 3 for 5 on Opening Day of the 1982 season. He fell into a horrible slump thereafter, going 4 for 55, but Weaver stayed with him. Ripken's hitting turned around well enough -- he finished at .264, with 28 home runs and 93 RBIs -- to be voted the American League Rookie of the Year. Ripken missed only three games that year, the last of them the second game of a doubleheader on May 29, 1982. Floyd Rayford started at third base. It is the last time Cal Ripken Jr. has not been listed in the Oriole lineup.
Twenty-seven games later, on July 1, with the Orioles 38-33 after using Lenn Sakata and Bonner at shortstop, Weaver moved Ripken to short, a decision met by what the 1995 Baltimore media guide refers to as "unanimous disapproval from the critics."
Bonner was out of baseball after the following season, 1983, having hit .194 in 108 career at bats. Ripken won the American League Most Valuable Player award that year in what was his first season ever playing shortstop exclusively. He was 23, and he had found his natural place in the game -- and he knew it.
"I'd like to be remembered," he said then, only 280 games into the Streak. "I'd like to think that some day two guys will be talking in a bar and one of them will say something like, 'Yeah, he's a good shortstop, but he's not as good as old Ripken was.'"