Ripken's reprieve 10 years ago, only O's saw him as more than pitching prospect

August 09, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

It may be hard to believe, and even tougher to accept, but tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the big-league debut of Cal Ripken Jr.

The best pitcher you never saw.

On Aug. 10, 1981, two days after his recall from Rochester, Ripken made an unlikely first appearance. "Pinch-runner for Ken Singleton, scored the winning run on a double by John Lowenstein -- I remember it like it was yesterday," said Ripken.

What he also remembers, and few people outside baseball realize, is that it almost didn't turn out this way.

Today Ripken is the American League's perennial All-Star shortstop and one of the premier players in the game. But it was as a pitcher that he first attracted attention while playing at Aberdeen High School.

And, with one exception, every team that considered Ripken as a potential pick in the 1978 amateur draft listed him as a pitcher -- not a position player with power potential. In an era of high-tech individual scouting, including a central bureau from which all teams can draw information, it is rare that any facet of a player's ability escapes notice.

Every once in a while, however, one slips through the cracks. That apparently was the case with Ripken -- although having his father on the coaching staff and a major-league park available for thorough, and private, workouts certainly gave the Orioles an edge.

The Orioles were the only team that rated Ripken as a position player. For the most part, that was because of the foresight and persistence of a scout, who almost 10 years earlier practically escorted Al Bumbry to the big leagues.

Dick Bowie lived long enough to see Cal Ripken Jr. make it to the big leagues, but unfortunately not long enough to realize how accurate his judgment had been. His advantage over other scouts was knowing Ripken's desire to play every day -- and scouting him on days that he didn't pitch.

The best pitcher you never saw.

"I never saw him play the infield," admitted Joe Branzell, the longtime area scout for the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers. "Looking back now, you realize that he pitched every big game.

"The fact that he was also playing shortstop when he wasn't pitching probably took something away from his arm in both positions. That's something that might not have been taken into consideration at the time, but I definitely think the Orioles had an edge. They weren't going to take the chance of missing out on the son of Cal Ripken Sr.

"Dick [Bowie] and I were good friends, but we never talked about Cal," said Branzell, who managed the Washington Boys Club, the counterpart to Baltimore's nationally known Johnny's team, for many years. "I think Dick might have hid him a little bit."

Bowie didn't have the opportunity to hide Ripken -- he was out there for the baseball world to see -- but what he did do was hide the fact that there was more to this kid than pitching.

"Everybody likes him as a pitcher," Bowie said shortly after the Orioles made Ripken a second-round draft choice. "But I think he can play the infield in the big leagues -- and I'm not sure he can't play shortstop."

The only other person who voiced that opinion was the one who had the most to do with Ripken settling into the shortstop position. It might have been the best observation former manager Earl Weaver ever made.

The best pitcher you never saw.

"At first [early in his high school career], there would be two or four scouts at the games," Ripken recalled. "Then it got to be six, eight or 10, and at the end there were a lot of them.

"They always seemed to make sure they came around when I pitched. And a lot of times they wanted to see me throw on the side -- but nobody came out and wanted to see me take ground balls or hit in batting practice.

"It got to the point where I was sure I was going to be drafted -- but I wasn't sure I would be drafted the way I wanted to be. It kind of scared me, disappointed me in a way, but it was out of my control."

At the age of 17, Ripken was considered a good prospect by most, but not all, scouts. Branzell's report notes "little short on fastball velocity," but also points out similarities between Ripken and Jim Palmer.

"He threw about average for me," said Branzell, "but his fastball and slider were close to the same speed, which is good; he had a good curve and a changeup. I don't remember him being that big [his report listed Ripken at 6 feet 3, 195 pounds -- 1 inch and 15 pounds more than the actual figures], but you had to figure he'd get faster.

"But you had to be crazy not to like his makeup. I don't turn in reports unless I think a kid is a prospect, and I'm conservative. I put down $20,000 as a bonus [which is what Ripken got from the Orioles] and that was good money in those days, so I must've liked him."

One scout who admits he didn't is Walter Youse, a longtime scout in this area for the Orioles, Angels and Brewers. "I saw him once and got him only at 81 [mph]," said Youse. "He got high school hitters out with curveballs and he didn't hit or run."

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