Cal Ripken, The Early Years

Before the 3,000 hits, the streak of 2,632 games, and his probable Hall of Fame induction, Cal Ripken Jr. was just one of thousands of young ballplayers hoping for a chance at a big league job. What follows is a retrospective of Cal Ripken’s early years as a baseball prospect.

The Orioles drafted Cal Ripken, Jr. in the second round of the 1978 amateur draft. The organization received the pick as compensation for losing relief pitcher Dick Drago to the Boston Red Sox.

From the beginning, Ripken drew attention for his unique combination of size and athleticism. He had the strength to hit in the middle of a lineup and the athleticism to reverse slam dunk a basketball. During one trip to Spring Training, Jim Palmer quipped, “Ripken’s the best all-around athlete in camp. I know, because I used to be.” Houston scout Gordon Lakey claimed that scouts “find a kid with that kind of power who is so quick he eats up everything inside once every 10 years.”

Ripken was also lauded for his maturity and cerebral approach to the game. During Spring Training of 1981, Baltimore infielder Rich Dauer noted that, in addition to “the perfect physique”, Ripken also possessed “the perfect personality” because he already carried himself like “the oldest 21-year-old in baseball.”

And his size? Well, he was big for a corner infielder but talented enough to play shortstop or second base. But we’ll get to that later.

Cal Ripken’s First Five Years of Professional Baseball
YEAR  AGE LEVEL   G  K/PA  BB/PA  ISOP 
1978   18 Rookie 63  17.4%  9.1%  .037
1979   19   A+  105  15.1%  7.3%  .114   
           AA    17  20.3%  4.7%  .181
1980   20  AA   144  13.5% 12.8%  .216
1981   21 AAA   114  16.8% 13.1%  .247
          MLB    23  20.0%  2.5%  .000
1982   22 MLB   160  14.8%  7.1%  .211

Ripken’s first two professional seasons were solid but unspectacular. After a poor performance during a late-season promotion to the Double-A Southern League in 1979, he started the 1980 season with a home run on the Southern League’s opening day. Ripken would go on to hit home runs on opening day for the next two years. He hit .276 with 25 home runs and 78 RBIs in 144 games with Charlotte in the Southern League, but he committed 35 errors while playing shortstop and second base.

Ripken’s power development during 1979 and 1980 put him on the map as one of the game’s best prospects. His body had matured; he was at full height and weighed over 200 pounds, and his extra-base hit potential at an infield position made him an ideal component of an Earl Weaver team. After his impressive Spring Training campaign with the Orioles in 1981, the secret was out. Ripken was among the game’s most highly-touted prospects (though Mets pitcher Tim Leary was probably the most popular prospect at the time).

At Triple-A Rochester, Ripken continued to do more of the same while primarily playing third base. He launched 58 extra-base hits (including 23 home runs) and earned a brief promotion to Baltimore during the strike-shortened 1981 season. Incidentally, Ripken’s only season in Triple-A included a starting role during the longest professional baseball game ever played; a 33-inning duel between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. Ripken played third base during the whole game and went 2-for-13.

Ripken’s father was a coach in the Orioles organization while he was progressing through the minor leagues, but Cal Jr. claimed he did not benefit much from the relationship. Another Orioles third baseman, Doug DeCinces, was actually much closer to the elder Ripken. Cal Ripken, Sr. agreed:

“You want to talk about a son? I tell you who was my son. It was Doug. I had him for three straight years, and people called him my son. There no question that in those three years I spent more time with Doug than with Cal.”

To DeCinces credit, he took “J.R.” under his wing during Spring Training of 1981 and later during Ripken’s brief callup with the Orioles:

“There’s an obligation on the party of the guy who holds the job to be decent to the player coming up. Brooks (Robinson) did it with me. Look at all the grief I had to go through replacing him. But none of it came from Brooks.”

After only hitting .128 in his first callup with the Orioles, Ripken was determined to prove he belonged in the big leagues. He won MVP honors playing winter ball in Puerto Rico and locked up the starting job before Spring Training even started.

In Jaunary of 1982, the Orioles traded DeCinces for outfielder Dan Ford. The Orioles could afford to make the trade because they believed Ripken was ready for the third base job, but Weaver’s dissatisfaction with his shortstops’ production led to some shuffling in July of 1982. Weaver moved Ripken to shortstop and utilized a largely unsuccessful platoon at third base for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Ford underperformed while DeCinces went on to have a career year, hitting .301/.369/.548 for the California Angels and finishing third in MVP voting.

Ripken was reluctant to move to shortstop, but he took to the position well and beat out Kent Hrbek and Wade Boggs for Rookie of the Year honors that year. Still, Weaver’s decision to keep Ripken at shortstop during subsequent season prompted much criticism. Even the team owner wanted Ripken to move to third base after acquiring Jackie Gutierrez in a trade with the Boston Red Sox. After Ripken set an American League record for assists by a shortstop in 1984, however, Weaver was as adamant as ever about his decision:

There isn’t even a need to talk about it … Ripken did at shortstop what Belanger, Luis Aparicio or any Hall of Famer ever did. What’s so bad about that? He’s a great athlete. He’s smart. He goes back on pop-ups better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Sure, he’ll eventually move to save his bat, but he’s 25. He’s the All-Star shortstop, and not just because of his bat.

Weaver and Ripken persisted without any regard to common beliefs about what position a 6 ft. 4 in., 225-pound power hitter should be playing. Ripken downplayed his inability to “dive and do fancy things” by maintaining that “if you play where you’re supposed to play, every play is routine.”

Ripken eventually moved to third base—in 1997 at 35 years of age—but his long and successful career at shortstop helped change prevalent assumptions about what shortstops are expected to do on the field. Ripken paved the way for the larger power-hitting shortstops that appeared on the scene during the 1990’s. When one of those shortstops, Alex Rodriguez, was elected as the American League’s shortstop for the 2001 All-Star game, he convinced Ripken to start at shortstop so that “everybody could reminisce about what a great career he had as a shortstop”.

Ripken’s career achievements are well known, and it is virtually certain that he will be named as a Hall of Fame inductee when the voting results are announced tomorrow. His early years were characterized by athleticism, maturity, and controversy concerning his position on the infield. He was in the right place at the right time, however, and his manager’s instincts helped Ripken change the way we think about shortstops. And despite all the concerns about how such a big player would hold up as a middle infielder, Ripken went on to become the most durable ballplayer in the history of the game.

References & Resources
“1980s Rookie Scouting Reports on Former Players.” Baseball Digest (Sept 2000).

Baseball-Reference.com

Boswell, Thomas. (March 12 1981) “Oriole policy on Ripken: Nicest kind of insurance.” The Washington Post.

Boswell, Thomas (March 2, 1982) “Young Ripken has been in Oriole plans for years; Ripken Jr. no novice to Oriole life. The Washington Post.

Gammons, Peter. (May 26, 1986) “Inside baseball.” Sports Illustrated.

The Baseball Cube

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