Ripken HRs do number at short

His power path to 400 remade position for Jeters, Rodriguezes

Cal Ripken : 400 Home Runs

September 04, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Though he stands just as tall at third base, Cal Ripken will always be remembered as the guy who took the short out of shortstop, which is why his 400th career home run carried with it some added historical significance.

That milestone didn't mean quite as much when Mark McGwire passed it early last year, because he is a classic power hitter who plays a traditional power position, and because it was just a quick stop on the road to No. 500 this year.

Jose Canseco hit his 400th home run in early April, but it did not generate tremendous fanfare for the same reason. He was built for the long ball.

Barry Bonds got more attention because he became the first player to accumulate 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases, but he also is a big, strong home run hitter in the classic mold.

Ripken is different. There are 28 other players who have reached that statistical plateau, but how many of them redefined the game at their primary position?

Just a handful.

"He set the standard," New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said recently. "Shortstops were short, defensive. Now, the position is offensive as well as defensive. He set the tone for the rest of us."

Depending on whom you talk to, Ripken was either the catalyst for a generational shift at the shortstop position or just the logical next rung on baseball's evolutionary ladder.

He was, and remains, the biggest man -- 6 feet 4, 220 pounds -- to play that position on a regular basis, but he has turned it over to a new wave of young shortstops who are bigger, stronger and more productive than any generation before them.

Jeter: At 6-3, the seemingly perfect combination of power, speed, pure hitting ability and defensive excellence. Might be the only player in a position to challenge Manny Ramirez for American League Most Valuable Player.

Alex Rodriguez: The Seattle shortstop, also 6-3, was edged out of the 1996 MVP trophy by three points, and last year became the first shortstop to hit more than 40 homers and steal more than 40 bases in the same season.

Nomar Garciaparra: He's "just" 6 feet tall, so he's not from the same king-size mold as Jeter and Rodriguez, but you'd never know it by his statistics. He has ranked among the top 10 vote-getters in the MVP balloting in his first two full seasons and undoubtedly will be in the top five this year.

Hail to the chief

Every one of them pays homage to Ripken, who has altered the physical archetype for the position and changed the direction in which baseball executives steer their best young players.

Rodriguez extols Ripken as his greatest idol. Jeter credits him with creating the new all-around standard for the position. Garciaparra, who along with Rodriguez has had to battle through an injury this season, marvels at his record of durability.

"I think the feat of playing all those games is the biggest feat in all of sports," Garciaparra said. "No one could understand just how great a feat that is unless you play major-league baseball."

Ripken will always be known as the player who broke Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable record for consecutive games played, but he also is proud of the role he has played in altering the perception of the shortstop position.

"I feel good about the contribution that I've made to the position," Ripken said recently. "It was unusual [at the time], but I was able to apply my skills, anticipate a little bit, cut down the range I was able to cover and have the position looked upon as more of an offensive position."

There have been some big-hitting shortstops in the past, but great hitters historically have been steered away from middle infield.

Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, for instance, played short for a large part of his career -- Ripken broke his record for home runs at the position -- but eventually moved over to first base. By the conventional wisdom of the pre-Ripken era, it was foolhardy to wear down a productive hitter at a grueling position or expose him to the increased possibility of injury at a contact position like shortstop or second base.

"The thing is, you always tended to move players who were great offensively away from positions that would wear them out," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "It was for longevity, because those positions take a lot out of you.

"That's why the classic power positions are left field, right field, first base and third. When you had someone who was such an offensive force, you also wanted to get him away from that [second base] bag. Hank Aaron was a second baseman when he was in the minor leagues. Mickey [Mantle] was a shortstop. You didn't want to put those guys in harm's way."

That reluctance was less pronounced at second base, where Joe Morgan was a two-time MVP for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s and Ryne Sandberg became a major offensive force in the 1980s. That position opened up to a similar wave of new offensive talent in the early 1990s, with the emergence of Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent.

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