Early in the 1988 season, when the Orioles were well into tha record-breaking, 21-game losing streak, a friend from out of town called to inquire what was behind it all.
But first he tossed in his own analysis by saying, "It sounds to me as though they have too many Ripkens and should start weeding out a few of them." My reply stopped that train of thought immediately. I said: "If anything, they don't have enough Ripkens. If you could have a team made up of 10 of them, with a few left over to manage and coach, you'd win the pennant every year."
He explained that, not being close to the situation, he reasoned that Cal Jr. was too big to be a shortstop, didn't have the necessary range and, coming off a .252 season in 1987, his offensive figures seemed to be on the way down; that Bill would never be a productive major-league hitter; and that Cal Sr., although a loyal coach and organization man, had not been a good manager, which was a major reason the team had gotten off so poorly.
In addition, he had decided that because Senior had been fired just six games into the season, his two sons would be so down on the organization they'd be completely unproductive as future Orioles.
It took some explaining before I convinced him he was completely wrong on all counts, that this was the most professional sports family I had ever been around, that Cal Jr. was a future Hall of Fame shortstop and that Bill would prove himself a valuable major-leaguer.
The thing that brought this conversation back recently was the major-league All-Star team picked by a national poll of sportswriters and broadcasters. Cal Jr. received only nine votes and finished a distant fourth among shortstops to Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell and Ozzie Guillen. Bill didn't get a call, not a single vote among second basemen. The Ripkens still aren't getting the respect they deserve from people around the country who don't get to see them play every day.
No knock against Larkin, Trammell and Guillen, you understand. They are all quality players who had good years. But I'd just as soon have Ripken as my shortstop as any of them. One thing you can make book on is that he didn't deserve to finish so far behind the others as to be almost ignored.
In Cal Jr.'s early years, I halfway bought the theory that he was too big to have the range to play short, but the more I watched him, the more he made a believer of me. He can play the position with the best of them, and when you go through an entire season never missing a game, while making only three errors . . . Well, how can you top it?
So, admittedly this wasn't his best season offensively. He doesn't like that .250 figure any more than anybody else. But he still hit 21 home runs, exceeding 20 for the ninth consecutive year, along with 84 RBI. Put it all together, and you've got yourself a shortstop.
At second base, there was really only one name to consider. Ryne Sandberg is in a class by himself. With only eight errors, he obviously plays the position well. When you do that and hit .306, with 40 home runs, 100 RBI and 116 runs scored, you're the man.
But Bill Ripken had a heck of a year in his own right, and, at age 26, has a lot more of them left. I'll be the first to admit that although I always projected him as a potential major-league regular, I didn't believe he'd hit .291 as he did this year. There has never been a question about his fielding. With his glove, I figured he'd be an asset on any team if he hit .260. What he did with the bat this year was a bonus, and it didn't look like a fluke.
And the old man? Where would you ever find a better, more loyal coach than Cal? Even though he was given the raw deal of being fired just six games into the season in '88, I felt sure he eventually would rejoin the organization in some capacity, and give the same 100 percent he always had given in the past. Why? Because that's the way he is.