Cal Ripken Sets Record Straight on His Defense : Baseball: Oriole shortstop doesn’t win Gold Gloves, but as focus shifts from offense to defense, he has shown he knows how to play the game.
Cal Ripken Jr. has never been flashy enough at shortstop to win a Gold Glove, but he has been steady enough to play 73 consecutive games without an error. Needless to say, the American League record he set Sunday night should be enough to translate into defensive recognition.
“I just think it’s tremendous,” said Ripken’s brother Bill, the Orioles’ second baseman. “I don’t think he’s ever been recognized for being a good shortstop. All people want to say is he’s too big to play shortstop. He doesn’t have the range of others.
“Be serious. He’s led the league in assists five times. He goes out there every day. The only thing he doesn’t do is get on the highlight reels. He makes all the plays look routine. It’s about time people realize that.”
Actually, Ripken made spectacular plays on his only two chances Sunday night to break the record set by the Detroit Tigers’ Ed Brinkman in 1972. The plays were so difficult, they probably would have been scored hits instead of errors if they had been flubbed by Ripken.
The first was a backhand in the hole on a grounder by the Minnesota Twins’ Gary Gaetti in the second inning. The second was a diving stop on another sharply hit ball by Gaetti up the middle with two on, none out and the score tied in the ninth.
Ripken lost his cap on the play but flipped to second baseman Tim Hulett for the forceout. The Orioles fell, 4-3, when reliever Gregg Olson allowed a single to the next hitter, Brian Harper. Ripken said he would have been more elated about his record had the score been reversed.
Still, he acknowledged, “It’s a little more special because of the fact that I’ve always been considered an offensive shortstop. No one ever focuses on the job I do defensively, or how I have to do the job. I’m a little bigger than most people. I have to rely on positioning.”
At 6-foot-4, Ripken is the tallest everyday shortstop in major league history, and one of the most accomplished. He set an American League record with 583 assists in 1984, and also handled 880 successful chances. Since World War II, only the St. Louis Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith has handled more in one season (909).
But Ripken, 29, is essentially correct in his belief that he is perceived mainly as an offensive player. He was booed at Memorial Stadium last month, even while pursuing Brinkman’s record, even while moving into second place on the all-time consecutive games list.
The reason, of course, was his prolonged batting slump, which he has since ended in dramatic fashion. Ripken went three for five Sunday night, pulling the Orioles within 3-2 with his ninth home run in the sixth inning, then tying the score with an RBI single in the eighth.
He has 20 hits in his last 40 at-bats, raising his average from .221 to .257, its highest point since April 21. He had hit only two home runs his 45 previous games, but is now on pace to finish with 19. He is the only shortstop in major-league history to hit 20 for eight consecutive years.
“I don’t want to evaluate my (offensive) performance,” Ripken said. “I would just like to stay in a pretty good groove, just try to go in the direction I have without saying why I came out of it or how I came out of it. I just want to continue going in the right direction, the right way.”
In fact, the most amazing thing about his record might be the way it has shifted attention from his offense to his defense. Ripken has handled 322 chances during his streak, which began April 14 in Detroit. The major league record for one season is 331, set by Brinkman in 1972.
“He’s like a hitter right now, in a good groove,” Oriole Manager Frank Robinson said before Sunday night’s game. “The balls are hit to him, he makes the plays. He makes it look effortless, easy.
“He doesn’t have the range, per se, of an Ozzie Smith or (Tony Fernandez). But he positions himself so he doesn’t have to move 20 or 30 feet to get to a ball. He doesn’t do it in a fashion that draws attention. But he covers the ground a shortstop has to cover. And he makes the plays.”
Ripken’s only error this season came on a Friday the 13th. He must again play on that unlucky day this month to continue his pursuit of the major-league record for consecutive games by a shortstop without an error--88, set by the New York Mets’ Kevin Elster in 1988-89.
Others might be superstitious. Not Ripken.
“I was married on Friday the 13th,” he said.