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
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 1995 issue
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
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
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
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
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.'"