This pair saw greatness in young Ripken

INSIDE PITCH

September 02, 1995|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Whenever anyone asks about Cal Ripken as a young player, which has been almost a daily occurrence the past few months, two names immediately come to mind.

Dick Bowie and Cal Ermer are not routinely associated with Ripken, but they were the first to convince this observer that there was a special player in the making. From watching Ripken since he was a skinny 15-year-old working out at Memorial Stadium, it was obvious he was polished well beyond his years

But that's a difficult age to gauge talent, requiring a gut feeling along with a well-trained eye. Bowie, the club's regional scouting director, insisted that the Orioles look at Ripken's hitting and defensive abilities while every other team considered him a prize pitching prospect.

"He's going to play in the big leagues -- it's just a question of which position," Bowie said as Ripken approached his senior year at Aberdeen High (1978). Bowie was the only scout who regularly attended games in which Ripken played shortstop, so he could watch him throw during infield practice.

Three years after he signed as a second-round draft pick (the Orioles' fourth pick overall), Ripken had advanced to within one step of the big leagues.

Playing for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, he attracted more attention than normal for a minor-league player because of the strike that interrupted play in the big leagues during the 1981 season.

It was during a visit to Rochester late that summer that an evaluation of Ripken was solicited from Ermer, then the manager of the Toledo Mud Hens. Few had better qualifications to formulate an opinion.

A Baltimore native, Ermer was a member of Billy Hitchock's coaching staff with the Orioles in 1962-63 and had spent much of his career managing in the minor leagues. At that point Ripken had played less than four months above the Double-A level, but Ermer had seen enough to remove any reservations.

"If he isn't a player, then I don't know where you'll find one," said Ermer.

Ripken was still a month shy of his 21st birthday and in the process of making the transition from third base to shortstop at the request of Orioles manager Earl Weaver.

Everyone knew once the strike ended, Ripken was going to Baltimore. He had grown up idolizing Brooks Robinson and seemed destined to play the same position until Weaver pushed for a trial at shortstop.

Like most observers, Ermer wondered if Ripken would have enough range to play the middle of the infield, but he had no other doubts. He even went so far as to draw comparisons between the prospect and Robinson before Ripken had spent a day in the big leagues.

"To me, he's got a lot of Brooks in him," said Ermer. "He has that ability to beat you, just like Brooks did. The only thing Cal doesn't do well is run -- but let me tell you, he's an excellent base runner.

"Brooks was slow, but one thing about him that people overlooked, he was a good base runner. So is this kid [Ripken], and he's much faster. He can beat you in a lot of ways."

Just like Bowie's early assessment, Ermer's words made an indelible impression -- even during Ripken's rough indoctrination into the big leagues. Like Robinson, he was hardly an instant success, hitting only .128 in 39 at-bats after being called up from Rochester.

His struggles continued early the next year, and it wasn't until the midpoint of the season that he was firmly entrenched in the lineup.

Certainly no one had a clue of the magnitude of what started on May 30, 1982, the first day of The Streak.

And, as long and as hard as he pushed for the move of Ripken to shortstop, Weaver had no inkling of the impact it would have on a probable Hall of Fame career. In fact, he fretted that it might hurt Ripken's chances for recognition.

"I don't like the idea of doing anything that would foul the kid up, and I'm not going to let that happen," Weaver said after making the switch July 1, 1982. "But I'd like to keep it like this at least through the weekend and see what happens. The one thing we know, he can always go back to third base and do a great job."

What started out as a weekend experiment evolved into the longest continuous run at the same position in baseball history. The skinny 15-year-old who might've been a pitcher has set a standard for the ages.

Watching it from the start has been a rare privilege, which unfortunately can't be shared with the man whose well-trained eyes, foresight and diligence played such a prominent role.

Dick Bowie died in 1981, shortly after his prized prospect made his big-league debut.

He didn't reap any rewards, but having Cal Ripken as a legacy is an impressive testimonial.

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