Jim Palmer and Mark Belanger did a double take the first time they saw Cal Ripken the potential major-leaguer hustle out to third base at Miami Stadium. It was nothing like their encounters with Ripken the toddler, Ripken the teen-ager or Ripken the coach's son.
Palmer called it "the second coming of Brooks Robinson."
The comparisons to Robinson, Mr. Oriole, Ripken's boyhood idol, were the ultimate compliments. Succeeding him at third base was a boyhood dream.
The dream ended and the compliments ceased when Ripken moved from third base to shortstop. Some people said Ripken did not have enough range to be a middle infielder. Others said he was too big and not fast enough. Ripken, at 6 feet 4 the tallest everyday shortstop in major-league history, self-deprecatingly described himself as "big and slow and cumbersome."
Not even Ripken's record-breaking glovework in 1990 could silence his detractors. He finished with the highest fielding percentage (.996) and fewest number of errors (three) ever for a major-league shortstop, breaking the records set by Tony Fernandez (.992, six errors) the previous season. Ripken established two other major-league records by going 95 games and 431 chances without making an error.
Yet critics asserted that Ripken's fielding records were products of his limited range. He didn't get to as many balls, so he couldn't make as many errors as a more acrobatic, diving shortstop.
"That's a crock," said Ripken's brother Bill, a fine defensive second baseman. "He can go get them. He just positions himself so well he doesn't have to show his range that much."
Even if Ripken's range is limited, the numbers confirm his brother's analysis that he compensated for his lack of lateral movement with positioning. Through 1991, he led the American League in putouts five times, assists six times, total chances four times and double plays five times.
Ripken positions himself in the infield based on the pitcher, the hitter, the balls and strikes count and the game situation. He knows his own pitchers extremely well -- what pitches they tend to throw in certain situations -- and he studies opposing hitters -- where they tend to hit the ball depending on the count.
The positioning techniques were used, to a lesser extent, by a slow-footed third baseman named Robinson. Third base is a more reactionary position than shortstop; knocking the ball down is more important than fielding it cleanly. But Robinson's positioning allowed him to make the spectacular plays.
"Your thinking might change based on who's pitching and what he's throwing," Robinson said. "A shortstop has to move around a little more than a third baseman."
Eddie Brinkman, a major-league shortstop from 1961 to 1975, played against Robinson. Brinkman's American League record of 77 consecutive errorless games was broken by Ripken. He saw two players who made up for their lack of speed with sure hands and sound footwork.
"I think they both had extremely good hands, they both had a knack for that quick first step," said Brinkman, a special assistant with the Chicago White Sox. "They're similar in a lot of ways, yes."
But Robinson's flair for the dramatic, his diving catches and spectacular throws from foul territory, earned him 16 Gold Gloves. The stronger-armed Ripken, who always seemed to be in perfect position to make the routine play, up to that point produced none.
Even in a season when Ripken broke major-league fielding records. Ozzie Guillen, a flashy, little shortstop with the White Sox, won the 1990 Gold Glove. "I'm embarrassed by my peers," Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine said of the voting.
Ripken subsequently won Gold Gloves in 1991 and 1992, the only two of his career. Practically every season, his critics have called for him to move back to third base. But his third base idol and his idol's contemporaries give him their utmost respect. As a shortstop.
"Cal's such as fine offensive player," Robinson said, "I think his defense has been overlooked. No one does it any better."
Brinkman said: "If I was in the seventh game of the World Series with two outs and a one-run lead in the ninth inning, I'd want the ball hit to Cal Ripken, because he would make the play."
THE RIPKEN YEARS