Ripken not one for posturing

Open, closed, hands high, hands low. Cal Ripken realized early on hitting was all about making adjustments.

Originally Published: July 22, 2004
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

He stood straight up, and he crouched like a Little Leaguer trying to draw a walk. He closed his stance, and he opened it up. He rested the bat on his shoulder, and he kept it away from his body. His bat was flat, it was upright, it started in a lot of different positions.

Cal Ripken Jr.
Cal Ripken Jr. featured a wide-open stance in 2000 ...

Cal Ripken was the man of a thousand batting stances, most of which worked very well. He was the master of adjustments partly because his father and mentor, Cal Ripken Sr., used to say at least once a day, "the game of baseball is a game of adjustments.'' If something wasn't working, Ripken Jr. would change it. That went for baseball, and everything else.

"It's not how you start a swing, it's how you finish it,'' Ripken liked to say. "No matter what stance I used, I always looked the same at impact. Look at the end of the swing, not the start.''

Ripken tinkered with his swing in part because his was not a beautiful one, a la Paul Molitor or Juan Gonzalez or Manny Ramirez. Gene Mauch, a great manager and perhaps the best student of the game of the last 30 years, once said that Ripken "had the worst swing of any great player I've seen.'' It had a loop, which generally prevents a hitter from getting the bat through the hitting zone quickly enough. But Ripken's hands were quick and incredibly strong, which is as important as anything in hitting. It was a sight to behold to watch him stand flat-footed, no stride, and hit balls off a batting tee into the seats.

"Cal will be remembered as a guy who changed his batting stance every two or three times to the plate,'' Tony Gwynn once said with a laugh. "And he could still make it work.'' George Will, author, columnist, commentator and a frequent visitor to Oriole games the last 25 years, once said that "2,130 is the number of consecutive games that Lou Gehrig played, and the number of stances that Cal Ripken will have had in his career.''

Cal Ripken Jr.
... it was considerably tighter in 2001 with hands close ...

The stance that got Ripken to the big leagues, the one that won him the American League Rookie of the Year in 1982 and the AL Most Valuable Player in 1983, was mostly upright, his hands were back, away from his body. His feet were closed slightly. His hands were really swift in his early 20's, he attacked the ball, generating amazing bat speed. When Ripken won his next MVP in 1991, he had a completely different stance. That year, he worked out of a deep crouch. The bat rested against his shoulder. (That season, Ripken also changed his approach to pitch selection. For most of the year, he jumped on the first strike he saw, often on the first pitch. Only the A's figured out what he was doing).

At various other points in his career, Ripken's stance so closed so severely, the No. 8 on his back was facing the pitcher. There were times when, in his set-up, he pointed his back directly at the umpire. Other times, he began his stance by placing the bat on his shoulder, then pointing it toward the ground. "Then there was my Wockenfuss swing,'' Ripken once said with a smile. It was reminiscent of former Tiger catcher John Wockenfuss. On that one, Ripken opened his stance, and fluttered his right hand on the bat.

Ripken's constant change is part of his personality. He is a tremendously analytical, curious person about the world, not just baseball. He is always wondering why things are done a certain way. Richie Bancells, the Orioles trainer, used to tape Ripken's ankles. During the taping, Ripken would ask question after question, such as, why do you put the tape around the heel first? After a final barrage of questions, Bancells playfully yelled back at Ripken, "I don't know why I do it this way! It's the way they taught me at trainer's school.'' From watching Bancells all those years, Ripken learned how to tape his own ankles. "Cal can tape his own ankles as well as a trainer can tape his ankles,'' said Brady Anderson, one of Ripken's former teammates. "No one can do that except Cal.''

Cal Ripken
... but in the end, it's how you finish, Ripken used to say.

No adjustment to his stance was ever made without considerable thought. This is, after all, a man who worked on his range on defense by inventing a drill in which an oscillating tennis ball machine shot grounders all over his gym, making him move laterally in different directions. Ripken has never done anything impulsively, he has never done been unprepared -- because being unprepared could lead to his greatest fear: being embarrassed. This is, after all, a man who was once challenged by his wife, Kelli, to try some jumps on the family's new trampoline. Ripken had rarely been on a trampoline. There was no way he would try without thinking it through, devising a strategy.

"Let me see what you can do,'' he told his wife. Kelli showed what she could do. Two weeks later, she walked into the family gym, and there was her husband, doing back flips, etc. on the trampoline. "You've been practicing the middle of night, haven't you?'' she said.

"No I haven't,'' he said.

He had. Whether it's trampolines or batting stances, there is always an adjustment to be made, always a way to get better. Look at the stance he used in his final All-Star game in Seattle 2001. His hands were no longer up, they were down, the bat handle was even with his waist. In his first at-bat in that All-Star game, he hit a home run off Chan Ho Park. Ripken won the All-Star game MVP.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.