A groundbreaker at short

Glove: Creating the mold for a new, bigger type of shortstop, Ripken compensated for his lesser range with greater preparation, putting him in position to play his position.

The Ripken Legacy : Defense

October 10, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Cal Ripken wasn't born to play shortstop. Most clubs viewed him as a pitching prospect in high school, and he arrived in the major leagues with third base written all over his budding career.

So, how did he end up as the best all-around shortstop of his generation?

The short answer is simple enough: Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver wanted to play him regularly there and moved him from third to short in 1982.

The long answer is a little more complicated: Ripken didn't exactly fit the traditional mold for one of baseball's most important defensive positions, so he reshaped the position in his own image and created the archetype for a new generation of bigger, stronger shortstops.

"It wasn't all that conventional," Ripken said recently. "I didn't have models before me to show me how to make plays at my size. In a lot of cases, I had to learn how I made the play instead of how someone else made it."

If he didn't have the range of an Ozzie Smith, he would have to find some other way to get to make the same plays. If he wasn't built to cover as much ground as his smaller, quicker counterparts, he would just have to reduce the distance between himself and the ball.

Whatever he might have lacked in athleticism - and it wasn't much - he made up for with preparation. He had grown up trying to emulate third base legend Brooks Robinson, but he obviously was paying attention when slick-fielding Orioles great Mark Belanger was one of the game's best shortstops.

"I just tried to do the best job I could," Ripken said. "I think my best advantage was my knowledge of how to go up the middle ... how to pay attention to pitch counts and use your knowledge of hitters to be in the right place at the right time."

That will be his legacy. Ripken always seemed to be positioned perfectly, whether he was setting up to make a play or saving baseball from itself after the labor debacle of 1994-1995.

Maybe the biggest defensive challenge of his career was getting anyone to notice. He routinely led the American League in total chances, putouts and assists during the 15 years he played there. But it wasn't until 1991 that he emerged from his own offensive shadow and finally was recognized with his first of two Gold Glove awards for defensive excellence.

He would finish his major-league career where he started, at third base, but he will go down in history as the man who physically redefined the modern shortstop.

Of course, it wasn't as if Ripken just walked out to shortstop on a dare. He had played there as a youth and actually spent more games at shortstop than third base during his brief major-league audition in 1981, but was considered a third baseman until Weaver moved him midway through his first full big-league season.

"Even though they were talking about switching him [to shortstop], I watched him take ground balls at shortstop all the time," said former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor. "It wasn't the first time he took ground balls there.

"Certainly, coming from Belanger and guys like that, he had some big shoes to fill, but Cal had the ability and the savvy to be at the right place at the right time, just like Mark. Every time a ball was hit, Mark was right there. I didn't see him backhand a lot of balls. He knew where they were coming. Cal was the same way."

If there were any reservations among pitchers about Ripken's ability to cover ground at the position, he quickly dispelled them by scooping up more balls and making more plays than anybody else. His size would turn out to be a major asset, allowing him to make more vertical plays and discouraging hard slides from runners when he was turning the double play.

"I was a fly-ball pitcher more often than not, but I was happy to have him at shortstop," McGregor said. "The thing I liked, he was a tall guy. You give up a lot of line drives in this league, and he could catch stuff other guys couldn't. And the reach he had around the bases with his throws ... Cal's natural ability was incredible. You could have put him anywhere and you wouldn't have to worry about it."

Ripken wasn't a flashy defensive player, which probably explains why it took him a decade to get a Gold Glove. He was - pardon the allusion to his truck commercials - steady as a rock, making all the routine plays and, perhaps as important, making all the plays look routine.

Sure, every pitcher would like to have Smith or Omar Vizquel performing acrobatic displays of defensive skill behind him, but former Orioles teammate and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer said recently that the thing pitchers like the most from a middle infielder is consistency.

"I once read a quote from [former manager and major-league executive] Dallas Green where he said that probably the most important thing for a shortstop is to be a two-out shortstop," Palmer said. "I asked him what he meant, and he said, `When there are two outs and it's hit to the shortstop, you know everybody's coming off the field. You know he's going to make the play he has to make.' "

That's Ripken in a nutshell. In 1990, he set a major-league record for fewest errors by a shortstop, when he committed just three and finished the season with a record .996 fielding percentage. He also holds or shares major-league or American League records at the position for most seasons leading the league in putouts (six) and assists (seven), most career double plays (1,565), most seasons leading the league in double plays (eight), most consecutive errorless games in one season (95), and a variety of other lesser-known distinctions.

Ripken committed 22 errors in his first year as a full-time third baseman in 1997, but showed his determination to remaster the position by reducing his error total to eight the next year. The back problems that hampered him the final three years of his career cost him some defensive consistency, but he still was considered one of the better defensive third basemen in the American League in his final season.

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