Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith have set elevated standard for shortstops


March 06, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- One is 5-foot-10, the other 6-foot-4. They are the two greatest shortstops of their era, yet they're impossible to compare.

Ozzie Smith redefined the position acrobatically, Cal Ripken analytically. Smith answered critics who said he couldn't hit. Ripken answered those who said he couldn't field.

Together, they have combined to play more than 3,000 major-league games, but today's Grapefruit League opener between the Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals marks only the 15th time they have appeared on the same North American field.

They have faced each other in the past nine All-Star Games and five previous exhibitions. Oddly enough, the most time they have spent together was in Japan, where they played in a seven-game series against Japanese All-Stars following the 1986 season.

Ripken vividly recalls the workout that took place at Dodger Stadium immediately before the trip. The major-league All-Stars were short on coaches, so he and Smith took turns using a fungo bat and hitting each other ground balls.

"I had a secret mission," Ripken said, smiling as he related the moment earlier this week. "I wanted to see what his skills were like, how agile and flexible he was.

"I acted like I didn't know how to use a fungo. I hit a couple to his left, a couple to his right. It was easy to see why he's so good. He goes a great distance both ways. And, he catches everything."

Smith doesn't remember the runaround Ripken gave him. "When I get out at shortstop," he said, "I just run down balls." But not surprisingly, he was equally impressed by his counterpart, and to this day remains a big fan.

"He's not a prototype shortstop per se," Smith said yesterday at the Cardinals' training complex. "At 6-4, 225, you think of him more as an outfield type, a third-base type. That speaks for his ability, to be able to hold down such a demanding position as shortstop.

"He's probably been looked at more as an offensive player than as a shortstop. When you do the offensive things he does, it kind of overshadows everything you do defensively. Just like my defense overshadows everything I do offensively."

It's a similar trade-off, but at times yesterday, Smith sounded like he almost envied Ripken. It bothers him that he's known more for his back flips than his batting skills. It also bothers him that he's being forced to play out his option year.

Ripken's next contract likely will make him the highest-paid player in baseball; Smith's likely will come from another team. Smith's problem is his age: He's 37, six years older than Ripken.


Last season, he set an NL record for a shortstop by making only eight errors (Ripken set the major-league mark of three in 1990). His .285 average was the second highest of his 14-year career. He led St. Louis with 83 walks, finished second on the club with 35 steals and also had 50 RBIs.

Think the Orioles are cheap? At least they signed one player for $3 million (Glenn Davis). The Cardinals have yet to cross that line. Smith's 1992 salary is $2 million. He said, "I've got a lot of baseball left," but he apparently is not wanted back.

Regardless, he someday will join Ripken in the Hall of Fame -- a considerable accomplishment, considering he hit only .231 his first four seasons with San Diego.

Some actually thought the Cardinals blundered when they acquired him for Garry Templeton in 1982. But Smith, a switch-hitter, has batted .270 in 10 seasons with St. Louis. He needs only one stolen base for 500, only 45 hits for 2,000.

"I never had any training as far as offense was concerned. I had to learn to hit here in the big leagues," said Smith, who played only 68 games in the minors.

"I wasn't born with a lot of size. I had to work to get to the point where people looked at me as more than just a defensive player. I'm not sitting here complaining, or trying to pat myself on the back. But in any sport, for a smaller guy to excel, he's got to work harder at it."

Ripken, a tall guy, had to do the same. Shortstop is a position that generally requires great agility. Ripken doesn't move like Smith, so he developed into a master of positioning, studying hitters, reducing distances, playing angles.

Smith, the defensive marvel, has won 12 straight Gold Gloves, but never an MVP. Ripken, the offensive wonder, has won two MVPs, but only one Gold Glove.

Who would you rather be?

"Anybody who plays this game would love to be 6-3 or 6-4, 220 or 225 pounds," said Smith, who is six inches shorter and 57 pounds lighter than Ripken.

"There's one thing in this game there's no substitute for -- that's power. If you've got power and any other athletic ability at all, the sky's the limit. There's so many things you can do."

The Wizard, of course, has done some pretty neat things himself. As a shortstop, he's Michael Jordan to Ripken's Larry Bird. It doesn't matter if Ripken has 237 more home runs and a stronger arm, or if Smith has 471 more stolen bases and greater range.

Such players aren't compared.

They're admired, savored, enjoyed.

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