Iron Man Ripken brought stability to shortstop

Updated: January 10, 2007, 10:37 AM ET
By Nick Acocella | Special to ESPN.com

"I remember having a conversation with my wife and she said, 'Well, can't you just play one inning and then come out?' I said, 'You too?' Because everyone was so into the streak and to me it was never about that. It was just about playing," says Cal Ripken Jr. on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

When Cal Ripken Jr. played in his 2,131st consecutive game, passing Lou Gehrig, he snapped what many baseball people had considered an unbreakable record. Ripken extended his streak to 2,632, and this is his lasting monument.

Cal Ripken
APRipken is one of only two American Leaguers with 3,000 hits and 400 homers.
But it is also something of a curse, since it has sometimes obscured his talents and given rise to a debate about whether the Baltimore Orioles infielder might have been a better player if he had taken an occasional day off. Eight seasons during the streak he failed to hit .270 and his career average, over 3,001 games, was .276.

On the other hand, Ripken's accomplishments are many. In 14 of his 21 seasons, he collected more than 20 homers. Eight times he drove in more than 90 runs. A two-time MVP, he holds the record for most homers by a shortstop and set a standard of excellence for shortstops in 1990 by committing only three errors.

Retiring after the 2001 season with 3,184 hits and 431 homers, he is one of only two American Leaguers -- Carl Yastrzemski is the other -- to have more than 3,000 hits and 400 homers.

Cal Ripken By The Numbers
Ripken's Year-by-Year Stats
Ripken was born on Aug. 24, 1960, in Harve de Grace, Md., and raised in nearby Aberdeen. After earning All-State honors while at Aberdeen High School, he was drafted by the Orioles in the second round (No. 48 overall) in 1978. Scouting Ripken was an easy chore for Baltimore. His father, Cal Sr., had been a minor league player and manager in the system and, since 1976, a coach with the Orioles.

After almost four solid years in the minors, Ripken came up to the Orioles in August 1981, but hit just .128 in 39 at-bats. The next year, he started slowly -- batting only .117 through May 1 -- but finished as Rookie of the Year, hitting .264 and leading all first-year players with 28 homers and 93 RBI.

On May 30, he began The Streak, playing third base against Toronto. Then on July 1 he was moved to shortstop by manager Earl Weaver despite criticism from sportswriters and fans, who thought the 6-foot-4 Ripken was too tall to play such a key defensive position.

The following season he won his first MVP award and helped the Orioles gain their first world championship in 13 years. He led the American League in hits (a career-high 211), doubles (47), and runs (121) to go along with a .318 average, 27 homers and 102 RBI.

The consecutive-game streak was threatened on April 10, 1985, when Ripken sprained his left ankle on a pickoff play against Texas. He finished the game (No. 444), but sat out an exhibition contest at the U.S. Naval Academy the next day. X-rays showed no fracture and Ripken was back in the lineup on April 12.

In 1987, Ripken hit 27 homers with 98 RBI, but was criticized for batting just .252. This "slump" drew criticism that Ripken was hurting the team by playing every day. His father, by this time the Orioles manager, didn't sit his son down for an entire game.

However, Ripken Sr. broke another consecutive streak that Cal was on. On Sept. 14, 1987 in Toronto, he put Ron Washington in as shortstop in the eighth inning of an 18-3 Blue Jays victory. This ended Ripken's record 8,243 consecutive innings -- over 904 games -- without respite, a streak that began on June 5, 1982.

Cal Ripken
The Camden Yards crowd had nothing but adoration for Ripken. The feeling appeared to be mutual.
In 1989, Ripken played in his 1,208th consecutive game to pass Steve Garvey for third place on the all-time list. The following year, he knocked Everett Scott (1,307) from the second spot. Only Gehrig stood in front of Ripken.

Also, in 1990, Ripken had his finest year defensively, establishing marks for best fielding percentage (.996), fewest errors (three) and most consecutive errorless games (95) by a shortstop. But the same season, his productivity at the plate continued to decline (.250, 21 homers, 84 RBI).

Then, in 1991, he silenced the critics -- at least temporarily -- by hitting .323 and erupting for career highs in homers (34, the most by a shortstop in 22 years), RBI (114) and total bases (a league-leading 368). Despite a sixth-place finish by Baltimore, Ripken became the only AL player to win the MVP award while playing for a team that finished below .500.

The early 1990s brought near misses for The Streak. There was a twisted right ankle while running out a double against Milwaukee on Sept. 11, 1992, and a twisted right knee when his spikes caught on the infield grass during an Orioles-Mariners melee on June 6, 1993. Though the knee was swollen and painful the next day, Ripken didn't even miss infield practice. "It was the closest I've come to not playing," he said.

But the early 1990s also brought honors and milestones: an All-Star Game MVP award in 1991 after hitting a three-run homer; his 278th homer on July 15, 1993 to pass Ernie Banks for the most by a shortstop; and his 300th homer on May 24, 1994.

But on Aug. 12, 1994 -- 11 days after Ripken played in his 2,000th consecutive game -- came a players' strike. A month later the owners canceled the rest of the season. In March 1995, with the strike unsettled, there were rumors that the owners would use replacement players. Ripken announced that he would honor the strike, even if that meant the end of his streak.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos intervened, however, and said he wouldn't use replacement players. "We have a special problem in Baltimore with the Cal Ripken streak," he said, "an extraordinary accomplishment by Cal and one that we certainly will do everything to avoid harming."

The strike was settled, and replacement players were never used.

Ripken caught Gehrig at 2,130 consecutive games in Camden Yards on Sept. 5, 1995 and received a five-minute standing ovation from the sellout crowd when the contest became official in the middle of the fifth inning. He also homered in Baltimore's 8-0 victory over California.

The next night, he played in his 2,131st consecutive game to set a new Iron Man standard. He homered in this game as well, a 4-2 win over the Angels. When the contest became official, the capacity crowd erupted in a 22-minute ovation, during which Ripken took a victory lap around the field.

On July 15, 1996, manager Davey Johnson switched Ripken to third base for the first time since 1982, an experiment that lasted just six games. But with the signing of free-agent shortstop Mike Bordick in December 1996, Ripken became the regular third baseman in 1997.

Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken went out in style at the All-Star Game in July 2001, winning MVP honors.
The Streak ended on Sept. 20, 1998, when Ripken took himself out of the lineup before the Orioles' last home game of the season.

The following April, Ripken went on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He also went on it again that season and appeared in only 86 games. However, the time off didn't hurt his stroke as he batted a career-high .340.

On April 16, 2000, Ripken became the 24th player to reach 3,000 hits when he singled off the Minnesota Twins' Hector Carrasco. But later that year, he went on the DL for more than two months. He finished the season with a .256 average in 83 games.

While Ripken was healthier in 2001, his average fell even further, as a late-season slump dropped his average to .239, the lowest in his 20 full years. His season highlight came at the All-Star Game, where he was starting for a record 17th time and making his 19th consecutive appearance. He punctuated the moment with a homer that earned him his second All-Star MVP award.

Besides retiring as the Orioles all-time leader in hits, homers and games, he also leads them in runs batted in (1,695), runs (1,647), doubles (603) and total bases (5,168).

On Oct. 6, 2001, at a ceremony after his last game, Ripken told the capacity crowd at Camden Yards, "One question I've been repeatedly asked these last few weeks is how do I want to be remembered. My answer is simple: To be remembered at all is pretty special. I might also add, that if I am remembered, I hope it's because by living my dream I was able to make a difference."

Ripken's dream continued after his retirement. In 2007, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, named on 98.53 percent of the ballots. It was the highest percentage ever for an everyday player and third best all-time, trailing only pitchers Tom Seaver (98.84) and Nolan Ryan (98.79).

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