1. Cal Ripken, Jr., SS/3B (1981-2001)
1982 American League Rookie of the Year
1983 American League MVP
1991 American League MVP
Gold Glove: 1991, 1992
Silver Slugger: 1983-1986, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1994
What on earth do you really say about Cal Ripken that has not already been said? He is the Iron Man. He is the absolute pride of the Baltimore Orioles, and you can argue that no player in the last 30 or 40 years has meant as much to baseball as Ripken has. He is not the greatest player of that time, not even close really. But make no mistake, Cal Ripken, Jr., was a great, great player, and he was the ultimate ambassador for the game of baseball. There aren't many players that are cheered in every park they go to. Ripken was one of them, particularly in the season where he broke Gehrig's streak.
But there's so much more to Cal than just the streak, although that will always be the No. 1 thing he is associated with. He is the best shortstop since at least Arky Vaughan, if not Honus Wagner. He was the greatest home run hitting shortstop of all time until Alex Rodriguez came along, and he was underrated defensively for much of his career. I again turn to Bill James, because this is one of my favorite writings about Ripken:
"One time about 1988 or 1989 Baseball America did a survey of players with the best tools. They listed the Royals shortstop, Kurt Stillwell, as having the Best Infield Arm in the American League. I'm a Royals fan; I thought, 'Wow, I never realized his arm was that good.' The Orioles came to town shortly after that, and I went to all three games, and focused on the shortstops' throws. It was preposterous to suggest that Stillwell threw as well as Ripken. Stillwell had a good arm, but Ripken played 5/10 feet deeper than Stillwell, and zinged the ball effortlessly to first base, every throw hitting the first baseman shoulder high. There was no comparison between them."
Ripken played 3,001 games in his career, 2,632 of them in a row. He hit .276/.340/447 with 431 homers, 1695 RBI, 603 doubles, 1129 walks, 1647 runs scored, 3184 hits. He won two MVP awards, in 1983 and 1991, won a couple Gold Gloves. He was an All-Star every year from 1983 through 2001, and though some years he didn't really deserve it, it speaks to the type of respect and love fans from all over the country had for Ripken.
Cal Ripken, Jr., was born and raised in Havre de Grace, Maryland, and was the ultimate hometown hero. He was actually drafted as a pitcher, but made it to the majors as a third baseman in 1982. He was moved to shortstop by Earl Weaver on July 1, and won the Rookie of the Year award after hitting .264/.317/.475 with 28 homers and 93 RBI. Cal Ripken played 160 games that year, and would not leave the Oriole lineup until September 20, 1998.
He was even better in his second season, hitting .318/.371/.517 with 27 homers, 47 doubles, 102 RBI, 211 hits, and 121 runs scored, helping lead the Orioles to the World Series championship and winning the AL MVP award. Ripken would hit 20 or more homers every year from 1984-1990. In 1991, he won his second MVP award, setting career highs with a .323 average, .566 slugging percentage, .374 OBP, 34 homers and 114 RBI.
Before that huge season, Ripken had a somewhat rough 1990 at the plate, but he had an amazing year defensively, making just three errors in 161 games at shortstop, a .996 fielding percentage as compared to the league average of .973. Ozzie Guillen won the Gold Glove that year, which probably wasn't quite as bad a decision as it seems to be if you just look at the fact that Guillen had 17 errors. Guillen did have better range than Ripken. But still, Ripken set an AL record for a shortstop with that fielding percentage, turned more double plays, went 95 games without an error. Guillen was good, but Ripken was unbelievably sure-handed that season.
Ripken would never get back to his 1991 season, although he was killing the ball in 1994 when the players went on strike, and he also tore it up in 1999, hitting .340, but over just 86 games.
September 6, 1995, is a day that will live in baseball history forever. I'm sure every one of us watched that game. I just remember how special it really felt. Not because it was supposed to feel so, but because it truly did. Ripken's jog around the stadium to shake hands with the fans after the game became official -- it was really something.
The strike in 1994 and the 1995 lockout would have hurt baseball more if it weren't for Ripken, and later the Sosa/McGwire home run battle. Sure, we'd all still be here or have come back full force by now, but Ripken helped the healing process greatly. His streak was also a hot point with the labor issue, and the MLBPA gave Ripken their blessing to keep his streak going if MLB used scabs to play in 1995. It never happened, but it was another instance where Ripken showed who he really was. He had no intention of playing in replacement games, and Peter Angelos, in possibly my favorite thing he's ever done, refused to field a replacement Orioles team even if the rest of the league went ahead with the idea. It never came to any of that, thankfully.
Ripken was not without his prickly side, though, and how could he have been? Nobody could have been the competitor he was without some pride and some serious fire. When Davey Johnson moved Ripken to third base to give Manny Alexander a shot at short, Ripken was hardly thrilled by it. And he was right. But Cal did need to move to third by that point. It only lasted six games, because Alexander was terrible and Ripken was struggling at the plate.
In 1997, the switch stuck, as the Orioles acquired gloveman Mike Bordick. Ripken moved to third base amicably at that point, playing solid defense and remaining a solid hitter.
On September 20, 1998, Cal Ripken, Jr., took himself out of the lineup. Ryan Minor headed out to third base to start the game, which was confusing, shocking even. After the first out was made, the New York Yankees stood at the top of the visitors' dugout and gave Ripken a standing ovation.
On September 3, 1999, Ripken hit his 400th homer. On April 15, 2000, he got his 3,000th hit. On July 10, 2001, he played in his final All-Star game, starting at shortstop after voted shortstop starter Alex Rodriguez insists on trading positions with him, in one of A-Rod's cooler moves. Ripken also hits a homer off of Chan Ho Park (Park grooved it -- who cares?). On October 6, 2001, he played his final game.
You know, maybe there will be, I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't bet that we'll ever see another player like Cal Ripken. The consecutive games streak took forever for anyone to break at Gehrig's mark in the first place, and I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be alive if anyone ever breaks Cal's record. And obviously players that spend their entire career with one team are a dying breed. Derek Jeter will probably do it, I guess, and Bernie Williams will do it but he's at the end as it is.
Cal Ripken, Jr., is, simply put, one of a kind, and the greatest Baltimore Oriole of all-time.