Is he the best shortstop who ever played? Ripken's season puts his name in contention for that honor

Ken Rosenthal

September 19, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Everyone knows the Orioles' Cal Ripken is completing a fantastic season, but it's not just any old career year. No, it's one of the greatest all-around seasons by a shortstop in major-league history.

Ripken was a likely Hall of Famer even before this year, thanks to his streak of 1,557 consecutive games, record-setting defense and batting prowess at a position usually reserved for little guys named Ozzie.

But 1991 not only marks a thunderous end to his four-year offensive decline, it could be remembered as the year Ripken began firmly establishing himself as one of baseball's all-time greats.

Are you ready?

Take a deep breath.

Ripken last night became the fourth shortstop in major-league history to hit 30 home runs in a season, joining Ernie Banks (five times), Vern Stephens (twice) and Rico Petrocelli (once).

But that's just the start. With 16 games left, Ripken is virtually certain to become only the second shortstop to bat .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in a season. Banks was the first, and he did it twice, in 1958 and '59.

Ripken is batting .326. He can finish 0-for-50 and still hit .300 for the first time since 1983. His 30 homers are a career-high, and he needs only one RBI to reach 100 for the third time in his 10-year career.

Take another deep breath.

Banks, the Chicago Cubs' Hall of Famer, produced a .313-47-129 season in '58, then a .304-45-143 season in '59. He was voted NL MVP both years even though he played for losing teams.

Ripken's power numbers obviously aren't as strong, and despite the obvious parallel to Banks, he's not expected to mount a serious challenge to Cecil Fielder and Frank Thomas for AL MVP.

However, he still could finish with statistics unmatched by any shortstop -- including Banks.

Ripken already is the first shortstop to hit 30 homers and 40 doubles in the same season. What's more, he now needs only 11 hits to become the first to collect 30 homers and 200 hits.

Granted, these things can get rather ludicrous -- presenting the first .300-30-100-40-200 shortstop! -- but Ripken's statistics in each category reflect the unprecedented excellence of his season.

Add defense into the equation, and the gap to Banks' MVP years narrows further. Ripken has committed 11 errors this season (he set a major-league record last year with only three). Banks made 32 errors in '58, and 12 in '59.

Of course, in the final analysis, it must be noted that Banks averaged 365 total bases his two MVP seasons. Ripken won the 1983 AL MVP with 343, and currently has 327. All right, so Banks wins.

Banks, in fact, was a 40-homer, 100-RBI man five times in six seasons from 1955-60. But he moved to first base after nine years, and of his 512 career homers, only 293 came as a shortstop.

Ripken, 31, could play shortstop another five years. He has 255 career homers, so it should take him two more seasons to pass Banks for the major-league record as a shortstop -- unless, of course, he bashes 40 next year.

The air is getting rarefied.

Take another deep breath.

The late Honus Wagner is generally regarded as the greatest shortstop of all time, but he retired in 1917. As Ripken's numbers build, so will his case as the top all-around player at his position.

It's an uphill fight. Wagner hit only 101 career homers playing in the dead-ball area. However, he won eight batting titles and five stolen-base titles, and virtually invented the position that Ripken redefined three-quarters of a century later.

Wagner, 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds, still ranks third on the all-time list in triples (252), sixth in stolen bases (722), seventh in doubles (643), seventh in hits (3,418) and 13th in RBIs (1,732).

Ripken, 6-4 and 225 pounds, is about halfway to Wagner in most categories, and isn't a factor in triples and stolen bases. But look at it this way: He already has more RBIs (927) than Hall of Fame shortstops Pee Wee Reese (885) and Lou Boudreau (789).

At the very least, he might eventually be considered the greatest shortstop in AL history. Wagner, like Banks, played in the NL. Joe Cronin, a .301 lifetime hitter with 1,424 RBIs, set the AL standard.

Ripken might not get to .301, but he has raised his lifetime average from .274 to .279 this season. He already has more homers than Cronin (255-170) and should eventually overtake him in RBIs. Cronin also averaged 25 errors a year.

Take one more deep breath.

Rather stuffy, isn't it?

Shortstops with 30 home runs

Shorstops that have hit at least 30 homers in a season with total, team and year

47 -- Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 1958

45 -- Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 1959

44 -- Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 1955

43 -- Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 1957

41 -- Ernie Banks, Chicago Cubs, 1960

40 -- Rico Petrocelli, Boston Red Sox, 1969

-- Vern Stephens, Boston Red Sox, 1949

-- Cal Ripken, Baltimore Orioles, 1991

30 -- Vern Stephens, Boston Red Sox, 1950

through Sept. 18

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