Cal Ripken, Jr.

One of the all-time great shortstops, Cal Ripken, Jr.’s other achievements are somewhat overshadowed by his consecutive games played record. Baseball’s tallest full-time shortstop (6’4″), he combined power and defense in a way rivaled by few of his predecessors. A hometown hero who has played his entire career for the Baltimore Orioles, he started 17 consecutive All-Star games (the last three as a third baseman), hit more home runs than any shortstop in history and owns highest single-season fielding percentage for a shortstop.

Born and raised in nearby Havre de Grace, MD, Ripken was originally drafted as a pitcher, but made it to the big leagues for good as a third baseman in 1982. Moved to short by manager Earl Weaver on July 1, he finished the campaign as AL Rookie of the Year, hitting .264 with 28 HR and 93 RBI. He also began a streak of consecutive innings played that hit 8,243 over 904 games before ending September 14, 1987, and a consecutive games played streak which would last almost eleven more years.

In 1983 Ripken emphatically defied the sophomore jinx. Batting .318 with 27 HR and 102 RBI while leading the AL in hits (211), doubles (47), and runs scored (121), he became the first player to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in consecutive seasons. Completing a storybook year, he recorded the final putout in the 1983 World Series, a liner off the bat of Garry Maddox, as the Orioles defeated the Phillies in five games for their first World Championship since 1970.

The following season Ripken set the A.L. single season records for assists by a shortstop with 583. On May 6th, 1984 he hit for the cycle in Texas, becoming the first Oriole to do so since Brooks Robinson in 1960, and finished the season with 28 home runs and a .304 batting average.

Ripken had his doubters, many of whom found it hard to reconcile the images of a great-fielding shortstop and a heavy hitter. Steadily improving his defensive game, Ripken led the league in assists in 1983, 1984, 1986, and 1987; putouts in 1985; and double plays in 1983 and 1985. But Ripken also led all major league shortstops in home runs, RBI, runs scored, and slugging percentage each year from 1983 to 1986. He was the American League‘s top All-Star vote getter in 1985 and 1986. In 1987 Junior was managed by his father, longtime Orioles third base coach Cal Sr., and joined in the Baltimore infield by younger brother Billy at second base.

Over the years, every time Ripken’s hitting performance declined, The Streak was cited as a drain on his strength and stamina. His father ended his consecutive innings streak in 1987, sitting him at the ends of several games whose outcomes were foregone conclusions. Ripken stemmed the decline and temporarily silenced the critics with his 1991 MVP season. He finished first in the AL in total bases with 368 (an AL record for a shortstop, since broken by Alex Rodriguez), second with a .566 slugging percentage, second in doubles with 46, and second in hits with 210. That year he became the first AL shortstop ever to reach 30 HR (34, third in AL) and 100 RBI (114, 4th in AL) with a .300 batting average (.323, sixth in the AL) and the first right-handed AL batter since Al Rosen in 1953 to hit 30 home runs while striking out less than 50 times.

The year was highlighted by a stellar performance at the All-Star game. After awing the assembled All-Stars and fans with 12 home runs in 22 swings during the home run derby, Ripken proved his groove was no fluke the next day. Belting a three run homer off former teammate Dennis Martinez, Ripken won game MVP honors. The season would end on a bittersweet note, however, as Ripken bounced into a 5-4-3 double play to end the last game at Memorial Stadium on October 6, 1991.

Inexplicably, one season after setting career highs in homers, RBIs and extra-base hits, Ripken set career lows in those categories in 1992 with a discouraging .251, 14 HR, 72 RBI season. His fielding, however, only got better as the years went by. He set the AL shortstop season record for fielding percentage with a .996 mark in 1990, committing just three errors in 161 games, and setting another record with 95 consecutive errorless games (April 14-July 27) and 431 consecutive errorless chances. Incredibly, Ripken would not win the Gold Glove that season; the award went to Ozzie Guillen and his 17 errors. Ripken would, however, win the award in 1991 and 1992.

Meanwhile, Ripken’s consecutive-games streak continued to climb among the all-time leaders. He finally passed Lou Gehrig‘s record 2,130 on September 6, 1995 in Baltimore’s Camden Yards. When the game became official after the bottom of the fifth, Ripken took a spontaneous lap around the stadium to shake hands with his adoring fans.

On the heels of the devastating 1994 strike and the early 1995 lockout, the goodwill generated by Ripken’s accomplishment helped accelerate the healing process between baseball and its jilted fans.The streak had actually transcended the strike, as the Players’ Union gave its blessing for Ripken to keep the streak alive by playing in potential 1995 replacement-player games. Although the games never took place, and Ripken stated that he wouldn’t have played anyway, Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos made it clear that to protect The Streak Baltimore would not field a replacement team even if the rest of the league did.

Both before and after Ripken broke Gehrig’s record, some seized upon The Streak to criticize Ripken as a goal-oriented rather than team-oriented player. In 1996, the issue arose again when manager Davey Johnson expressed a desire to move Ripken to third base so that Manny Alexander could be tried at shortstop. Ripken’s thinly restrained dissatisfaction with the proposal wasn’t as compelling as his shrinking range and weakening arm, though, and Johnson made the move on July 15, ending Ripken’s streak of consecutive starts at shortstop at 2,216 games.

The light-hitting Alexander was a disappointment, and despite stellar defense at third Ripken slumped at the plate. As a result, the experiment was abandoned after six games. At the All-Star Game that season, Ripken’s nose was broken at the end of a pre-game photo session when White Sox pitcher Roberto Hernandez lost his balance and swung his forearm back, striking Ripken. Needless to say, Ripken played anyway.

In 1997, the Orioles acquired shortstop Mike Bordick and moved Ripken to third base permanently, a switch he seemed more willing to accept. Although he could no longer put up the big numbers he had earlier in his career, Ripken had a solid season both offensively and defensively at his new position. The switch made the Orioles a better defensive team all around, and they ended up winning their first American League East title since 1983, reaching the League Championship Series for the second straight year. Though the Orioles lost in six games to Cleveland, Ripken showed no signs of age or fatigue, batting .348 for the series with two doubles and his first career post-season home run.

Diminishing power number in 1998 (14 home runs and 61 RBI) reopened the debate about whether a day off would benefit the Ripken. On September 20th he settled the matter for himself, informing manager Ray Miller shortly before game-time that he wouldn’t be playing that night. When young prospect Ryan Minor trotted out to third base to start the game, few people understood what was happening. After the first out, however, the visiting Yankees gave Ripken a standing ovation from the top of the dugouts steps, and the Camden Yards fans quickly followed suit. 53 outs later, baseball’s longest consecutive games streak officially ended at 2,632.

The following season would prove arguably the most trying and rewarding of Ripken’s long career. Less than two weeks before Opening Day, Cal Sr. succumbed to lung cancer. Burdened by his father’s death and lingering back problems that left him unable to swing a bat or field a ground ball without pain, Cal began the year in miserable form. When in late April his back problems forced him onto the disabled list for the first time ever, the whispers that he should retire grew steadily louder.

Following his return from the disabled list, however, a rejuvenated Cal silenced his critics by embarking on his most productive and extended hitting tear in years, a hot streak rivaled only by stretches of his ’83 and ’91 MVP seasons. Though he played just 86 games (a second trip to the disabled list cost him 28 games in August, and subsequent back surgery sidelined him for the final 13 games of the year), Ripken set career highs in batting average (.340), slugging average (.584) and HR frequency (1 every 18.4 AB). Ironically, his father’s death may have triggered the offensive renaissance. In the past, Ripken had relied exclusively on the baseball advice of Cal Sr., but in 1999 he began working closely with O’s hitting coach Terry Crowley, and the results were unmistakable.

The highlighting of Ripken’s season came on June 13th at Atlanta’s Turner Field, when he produced the first six-hit game in Orioles history during a nationally televised Sunday night contest. The performance saw him blast two home runs and tie a club record with 13 total bases. On September 2nd at Baltimore he launched the 400th home run of his career, and finished the year just nine safeties shy of becoming the seventh major-leaguer to collect both 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. After the season, Ripken joined Ernie Banks as one of two shortstops honored with a selection to Major League Baseball’s All Century team.