Scout's strong pitch: Ripken as a shortstop

April 17, 2000|By John Steadman

Projecting Cal Ripken as a baseball shortstop and not a pitcher, even when he was still green and growing, qualifies as an example of exceptional judgment. The natural ability was there. And his father before him, Cal Sr., had already established the name.

But consider the embarrassment had the Orioles somehow allowed another team to pick him Ripken in the free-agent draft of June 1978? It would have been an error of incalculable proportion, but one they would have had to suffer with.

There were 47 players drafted ahead of the then-17-year-old prospect. A Ripken anywhere but in the Orioles' organization would have been a devastating setback for the franchise. Even now, 22 years later, they would still be trying to explain how it happened and feeling the unforgiving wrath of the Baltimore baseball constituency.

Yet Ripken, though highly regarded, didn't lead the Orioles' draft list. That year, they took a third baseman, Bob Boyce of Cincinnati, as their first pick and had three choices on the second round, taking outfielder Larry Sheets of Staunton, Va., and pitcher Edwin Hook of San Diego with the first two. Then came Ripken.

Before assuming contract rights to his baseball future in the draft, they had to decide what they planned to do with him. Pitch him or play him at shortstop? The late Dick Bowie, a scout from Stafford, Va., who covered the Middle Atlantic area for the Orioles, offered the opinion, with the strongest of conviction, that Ripken should be a shortstop. Other teams had considered him a middle-to-late-round acquisition, but their thinking was predicated for the most part on his future as a pitcher.

Joe Consoli of the Major League Scouting Bureau watched Ripken playing for Aberdeen High on April 12, 1978, and filed a report - focusing on his potential as a pitcher, not a shortstop. Consoli's evaluation is reprinted here:

Physical Description - No glasses or known injuries. Built like handsome Jim Palmer. Son of Cal Ripken, Baltimore coach. Young, fine looking, long-armed, big-boned specimen. Eight points, deduction accountable [for] inexperienced delivery.

Abilities - Throws mostly hard curves, three-quarter-armed sinkers. Mixes breaking balls with few fastballs. Changes on curveball and fastball bores down and in for control strikeout pitch. Outstanding competitor. Can hit. RUBBER ARM.

Weaknesses - Runs 4.6 to first base. Not fully matured. Growing taller faster than mobility will allow. Does not release ball down far enough past body but has sneaky stuff on all pitches.

Consoli went on to term Ripken's habits and dedication as "excellent" (no surprise there), his aptitude, physical and emotional maturity as "good" and agility as "fair."

The Orioles' scouting director, Tom Giordano, liked him as a pitcher-shortstop but, again, with emphasis on pitching. Bowie's rationale was different and perceptive. It was to be endorsed and implemented later by Giordano. Bowie believed Ripken should first be tried as a position player and, if he failed, could then be given a second opportunity - to pitch.

To do it the other way around would be more difficult, even illogical from a practical baseball sense. And Ripken's preference from the outset was that he wanted to be an "everyday player."

Most scouts came to see Ripken at Aberdeen High when he was scheduled to pitch, not when he was playing shortstop. So it was Bowie's opinion he should initially be put on the infield, a decision instrumental in Ripken's development and ultimate emergence as one of the important players in baseball history.

"I remember the day we held what you could call a private workout at Memorial Stadium," recalls Jim Gilbert, then an assistant to Bowie and his subsequent successor. "It was pre- draft. Dick wanted to put him at shortstop to see how he moved at the position and threw from there. The only ones watching were Dick, his son Randy and associate scouts Paul McNeil, Bill Timberlake and me. I was working then as Dick's assistant."

Gilbert remembers that Clyde Kluttz, the club's farm director, called Bowie over near the backstop and said he wanted to be told where he thought Ripken should play, but then went back to his office at Memorial Stadium. The Orioles desired the benefit of Bowie's thinking and wanted it that day.

Before the workout was over, Ripken injured the little finger on his throwing hand. They went to the locker room for a minor repair. "I told him," recalls Gilbert, "that I guess he had enough through the long afternoon session. But he said he was ready to go again, and we went back on the field for more ground balls. He was that way then, just as he is now.

"I think Dick Bowie's decision in knowing what to do with Cal was one of the best pieces of scouting I have ever seen. Later, Orioles manager Earl Weaver also agreed Cal belonged at shortstop."

After being drafted and signed for a $20,000 bonus, Ripken went off to Bluefield of the Rookie-level Appalachian League, the bottom rung of organized baseball, and was impressive. He didn't hit a home run, except in an intrasquad game, but looked the part of a genuine prospect.

In three more years, with stops in Miami, Charlotte and Rochester, he achieved his objective - Baltimore and the Orioles. By dint of desire and talent, he has written glorious baseball history.

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