Though he stands just as tall at third base, Cal Ripken will always be remembered as the guy who took the short out of shortstop, which is why his 400th career home run carried with it some added historical significance.
That milestone didn't mean quite as much when Mark McGwire passed it early last year, because he is a classic power hitter who plays a traditional power position, and because it was just a quick stop on the road to No. 500 this year.
Jose Canseco hit his 400th home run in early April, but it did not generate tremendous fanfare for the same reason. He was built for the long ball.
Barry Bonds got more attention because he became the first player to accumulate 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases, but he also is a big, strong home run hitter in the classic mold.
Ripken is different. There are 28 other players who have reached that statistical plateau, but how many of them redefined the game at their primary position?
Just a handful.
"He set the standard," New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said recently. "Shortstops were short, defensive. Now, the position is offensive as well as defensive. He set the tone for the rest of us."
Depending on whom you talk to, Ripken was either the catalyst for a generational shift at the shortstop position or just the logical next rung on baseball's evolutionary ladder.
He was, and remains, the biggest man -- 6 feet 4, 220 pounds -- to play that position on a regular basis, but he has turned it over to a new wave of young shortstops who are bigger, stronger and more productive than any generation before them.
Jeter: At 6-3, the seemingly perfect combination of power, speed, pure hitting ability and defensive excellence. Might be the only player in a position to challenge Manny Ramirez for American League Most Valuable Player.
Alex Rodriguez: The Seattle shortstop, also 6-3, was edged out of the 1996 MVP trophy by three points, and last year became the first shortstop to hit more than 40 homers and steal more than 40 bases in the same season.
Nomar Garciaparra: He's "just" 6 feet tall, so he's not from the same king-size mold as Jeter and Rodriguez, but you'd never know it by his statistics. He has ranked among the top 10 vote-getters in the MVP balloting in his first two full seasons and undoubtedly will be in the top five this year.
Hail to the chief
Every one of them pays homage to Ripken, who has altered the physical archetype for the position and changed the direction in which baseball executives steer their best young players.
Rodriguez extols Ripken as his greatest idol. Jeter credits him with creating the new all-around standard for the position. Garciaparra, who along with Rodriguez has had to battle through an injury this season, marvels at his record of durability.
"I think the feat of playing all those games is the biggest feat in all of sports," Garciaparra said. "No one could understand just how great a feat that is unless you play major-league baseball."
Ripken will always be known as the player who broke Lou Gehrig's seemingly unbreakable record for consecutive games played, but he also is proud of the role he has played in altering the perception of the shortstop position.
"I feel good about the contribution that I've made to the position," Ripken said recently. "It was unusual [at the time], but I was able to apply my skills, anticipate a little bit, cut down the range I was able to cover and have the position looked upon as more of an offensive position."
There have been some big-hitting shortstops in the past, but great hitters historically have been steered away from middle infield.
Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, for instance, played short for a large part of his career -- Ripken broke his record for home runs at the position -- but eventually moved over to first base. By the conventional wisdom of the pre-Ripken era, it was foolhardy to wear down a productive hitter at a grueling position or expose him to the increased possibility of injury at a contact position like shortstop or second base.
"The thing is, you always tended to move players who were great offensively away from positions that would wear them out," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "It was for longevity, because those positions take a lot out of you.
"That's why the classic power positions are left field, right field, first base and third. When you had someone who was such an offensive force, you also wanted to get him away from that [second base] bag. Hank Aaron was a second baseman when he was in the minor leagues. Mickey [Mantle] was a shortstop. You didn't want to put those guys in harm's way."
That reluctance was less pronounced at second base, where Joe Morgan was a two-time MVP for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1970s and Ryne Sandberg became a major offensive force in the 1980s. That position opened up to a similar wave of new offensive talent in the early 1990s, with the emergence of Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent.
Times have changed dramatically. Before Hall of Fame Orioles manager Earl Weaver bucked tradition and moved Ripken from third base to shortstop, a player with the stature of Rodriguez almost certainly would have been steered away from the position.
"They would have tried to put him at a power position," said longtime baseball executive Dallas Green. "You were always looking for the premium players at the power positions. I don't think that enters into it now.
"It's like when we [the Chicago Cubs] had Sandberg at second base, people said, 'You're going to get him killed.' But you're not because he's a great athlete. They learn how to protect themselves."
It wasn't just Ripken's size that made him special, of course. There were other big men who played shortstop before he transformed it, but none with the athleticism to use that size the way Ripken did to protect himself from injury in the countless opportunities for hard contact on plays at second base.
"There were a few of them that were as big as him," said former big-league shortstop Don Zimmer, who played in the 1950s and '60s before embarking on a long career as a coach and manager, "but none of them were as good as Ripken.
"You're talking about one of the best. You can take all the records I've seen in 50 years, and you can forget about the record he has. I don't like to use the word never, but there ain't anyone who is going to break that."
Ripken has never been comfortable with the adulation he has received for his many accomplishments, though he reluctantly allowed himself to bask in the glory of his record-breaking game on Sept. 6, 1995. He is equally sheepish about taking credit for a sea change in the perception of the modern-day shortstop, though he says, "It makes me feel good" that his young contemporaries view him that way.
"I don't think I blazed a trail or anything," he said. "With the evolution of the game, we're bearing witness to athletes who are bigger, stronger and faster -- more combinations of power and speed -- and it makes sense that some of the very best players in our game today are at the shortstop position."
Successors copy his style
The new wave has adopted not only his dogged determination to play every game, but even aspects of his personality. Jeter carries himself with the same upright confidence. Rodriguez has mirrored his squeaky-clean image. Garciaparra, perhaps unintentionally, reflects Ripken's reserved, diplomatic approach with the media. It probably is not a coincidence.
"I think any player who played shortstop followed Cal Ripken, but he has so much respect from players, regardless of your position," Jeter said. "The streak -- that's ridiculous. It's hard enough to play every game in one year forget about 2,600 games. You have to be strong both physically and mentally. Look at all the nagging injuries you have to play with. That's a streak that will never be broken."
So, they seek him out, and Ripken has never been reluctant to share his experience with younger players.
"What do you say to him?" Jeter said. "You ask questions like, 'How do you go through a year making only three errors?' You learn a lot just watching him, but any time you get a chance to talk to a player like that, you do it because you can learn something."
His older contemporaries revere him, too, though perhaps not in the same hero-worship mode. Reds star Barry Larkin came along a few years after Ripken and brought his own aggressive offensive style to the National League.
"He was one of those transition guys," Larkin said. "Mark Belanger and Larry Bowa were great-glove, no-hit guys. Ozzie Smith was also known for his defense. Cal Ripken was an offensive-minded shortstop. He always was a physically different shortstop than anyone else.
"He had the power, Ozzie Smith had the speed and I kind of molded them together. We bridged the gap to now, and these guys are the total package."
Pub Date: 9/04/99