It took Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. nearly a decade to prove to the baseball world that he is more than just an offensive player, but today he'll finally get some tangible recognition for his outstanding defensive performance.
Today is the day that the Rawlings Gold Glove Awards will be handed out in New York, and a club source confirmed yesterday that Mr. Ripken will be at Manhattan's World Trade Center tonight to pick up his first Gold Glove at a black-tie gala honoring all of the winners.
It will be the final jewel in a crowning year for Mr. Ripken, who already has been named American League Most Valuable Player by the Baseball Writers Association of America and Player of the Year by both the Sporting News and the Associated Press. He already had acquired plenty of hardware before embarking on the best all-around season of his career, but the Gold Glove had always gone to someone quicker or flashier or, perhaps, less deserving.
Chicago White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen won it in 1990, though Mr. Ripken strung together a major-league-record 95 consecutive errorless games at his position and set another major league mark for shortstops with just three errors all season.
The Gold Glove winners are determined by a leaguewide vote of coaches and managers, but the Ripken snub in 1990 prompted one voter -- Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine -- to call the outcome an "embarrassment."
Mr. Ripken did not complain. That's not his style. He just went back out and had another outstanding defensive season, leading the American League in fielding percentage (.986), putouts (267), assists (529), total chances (807) and double plays (114). Lest anyone think those numbers are inflated because he plays almost every inning of every game, he also led the league's everyday shortstops in chances per game (4.98).
If he isn't as quick as a Guillen or a Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds, he makes up for it with preparation and positioning.
Manager John Oates said, "The best compliment I could pay him is this: If I'm a pitcher and it's a one-run game with a runner on third and two outs in the ninth inning, there's not another player in baseball I want the ball hit to, because the game's going to be over. He's that dependable."
Mr. Oates claims that to truly appreciate Mr. Ripken's defensive play, you have to watch him day in and day out for an entire season, but the numbers paint a fairly accurate picture of baseball's steadiest defensive player. Over the past two seasons, Mr. Ripken has averaged just one error every 106 chances -- little more than an error a month at the position where the most errors are made each season. Mr. Ripken's 11 errors in 1991 gave him a two-season total of 14, compared with 38 for Mr. Guillen, who had 36 fewer total chances.
Strangely enough, it took one of the greatest offensive seasons by a shortstop to assure Mr. Ripken of the sport's most prestigious defensive award. He ranked among the league leaders in virtually every relevant offensive category and set career highs with 34 home runs, 114 RBI and a .323 average. That shouldn't have made any difference in this vote, but his offensive resurgence had to help keep him in the eye of the voters.
Mr. Ripken disputes that notion, however. Rather than rail about the way he was passed over in 1990, he claims he actually had a better defensive season this year: "I thought last year I was deserving of consideration, but I don't evaluate myself on the number of errors I made. Even though I had the high fielding percentage and so few errors, I had difficulty last year anticipating. I didn't feel like I knew our pitchers that well. I didn't feel I was as good last year. This year, I felt better."
Yesterday, Mr. Ripken had to be feeling better about the Ripken Learning Center, the Baltimore facility that he and his wife, Kelly, established to teach adults to read. His Winterfest for Literacy '91 had raised between $150,000 and $200,000 for the center. And today, he and Kelly were honored by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at City Hall for their contributions to the city.
Mr. Ripken would not comment on this year's Gold Glove Award vote, choosing not to upstage today's well-orchestrated announcement and awards banquet in New York, but he has made no secret of his desire to put a Gold Glove into his bulging trophy case.
"You'd like to win it," he said. "It's a very prestigious award. With it comes the recognition of a job well done."
Mr. Ripken has been getting that kind of recognition on a regular basis since the regular season ended six weeks ago, but the Gold Glove had become a white whale. This time, it didn't get away.