- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
As of Sunday, Ripken had 238 homers as a shortstop (his career total is 246)—56 short of Ernie Banks's record. Where does he rate with the best shortstops? Honus Wagner hit .327 for his career, with 3,418 hits. Banks hit 40 homers and had 100 RBIs five times in eight full seasons at the position. Arky Vaughan's lifetime average was .318. Joe Cronin hit a career .301 with 1,424 RBIs. Luis Aparicio revolutionized base stealing and was brilliant defensively. They're all Hall of Famers. Should Ripken do for the next five seasons what he will average for his first 10, he will go down, after Wagner, as the second-best shortstop in history.
The sad part is it shouldn't have taken a .332 average and a home run show at the All-Star Game to open the baseball world's eyes to his accomplishments. It's a crime that Ripken didn't win the Gold Glove last year, when he committed just three errors, none on the grass field at Memorial Stadium, breaking the major league record for fewest errors in a season by a shortstop. Through Sunday he had made nine errors in his last 306 games. But not even managers and coaches, who do the voting, can fully appreciate Ripken by watching him 12 or so times a year. That's because he doesn't have the range of the Chicago White Sox's more spectacular Ozzie Guillen, who did win last year's Gold Glove despite making 17 errors. "I'm embarrassed by my peers," said Texas manager Bobby Valentine, one of those who voted for Ripken over Guillen.
Offensively, Ripken has more extra-base hits than any other American League player over the past 10 years. He's one of eight players in history to hit 20 homers his first 10 seasons in the majors.
And the streak? "He's the only man in baseball who could do it," says Seattle second baseman Harold Reynolds. "He's a stud." Ripken is 629 consecutive games away from breaking a record (2,130, by Lou Gehrig) that was believed to be unapproachable. But he had to defend the streak last year to Orioles fans who looked at his batting average (.256) from 1987 to '90 and claimed he was tired. In this era, when players are constantly missing games with injuries, the fans should have been carrying him off the field on their shoulders.
"I've never heard him say, 'I'm not feeling so good today,' " says Oriole first baseman Randy Milligan. "I say that every day."
Ripken is respected by fans and sportswriters, yet until this year there were those who said he was too big or too slow to play shortstop. Nothing could be further from the truth. But you need to see him play every day to appreciate how reliable he is defensively. He isn't flashy in anything he says or does. At a time when other players publicly blast teammates, managers and opponents, complain about making "only" $3 million a year, and moan about the length of the season, Ripken shuts up and plays. In interviews he chooses every word carefully. Never has he publicly criticized an opponent or an umpire. Even when his father, Cal Sr., whom he worships, was replaced as Oriole manager after six games of the 1988 season—he's now an Oriole coach—Ripken was diplomatic in his remarks.
What opponents and teammates admire most about Ripken is his durability, desire and ability to make the most of what he has. He isn't fast. He isn't particularly smooth. Former California Angels manager Gene Mauch once said Ripken had the worst swing of any great player he had ever seen.
"He doesn't have Canseco's swing," says Oates. "Or Dunston's throw. Or Ozzie Smith's ability to come in on a ball. He doesn't do anything that would wake up an opponent. He just beats them. But the bottom line is, if I'm pitching and I have runners at first and third with one out, the one guy I want the ball hit to is Cal Ripken, because I know the game's over. He's boring to watch for one game. But he's a joy to watch for a season."
The joyous individual season for Ripken reached its high point last Friday at Memorial Stadium with a pregame tribute in which he was presented with the van he won for being the MVP in the All-Star Game. He donated it to the reading program he and his wife, Kelly, established in Baltimore two years ago. He received thunderous applause for winning the MVP and for reaching his 1,500th consecutive game that night, and then he celebrated by hitting his 20th homer in a 4-1 victory over Seattle. He dislikes talking about the streak and the media hoopla that accompanies it, but after this game he said, "I hold this night deep."
He will surely hold this season deep, should the Orioles start playing better and should he continue his remarkable play. But no matter what awards he wins, what adulation he receives, nothing will change. He will work harder next winter, he will try to beat Anderson in the 12-minute run next spring, he will long-jump the dirt in Anaheim and remain the best sockball player on the Orioles. And when he gets to the Metrodome next year, he will race up the 33 steps in the tunnel. He will try to reach the top in five strides, just to see it he can do it.