The Baltimore Orioles had a problem.
In 1996, the Orioles soared to the playoffs on a monster offense that scored 949 runs. Not only was this the best offense Baltimore would ever put onto the field, it was an offense that has been topped only a few times during baseball's modern era. New Oriole Robbie Alomar teamed up Rafael Palmeiro and Brady Anderson to create one of the very best lineup fronts we're likely to ever see. But it wasn't enough to cover up the woes of the pitching and defense, which surrendered 903 runs. The 2000 Orioles are the only iteration to top that number since the franchise moved to Baltimore.
Until Derek Jeter and the 2009 Yankees captured the World Series crown, no team had ever achieved that ultimate success with a 35 (or older) year old shortstop. The position is just too demanding for a veteran with a lot of mileage to continue to play it at a high level. The position is also cornerstone to the entire defense; a bad shortstop will inevitably lead to a porous defense and then to a lot of runs allowed. Having an aging shortstop is akin to trying to fight with one hand tied behind your back. And as it happened, the 1996 Orioles starred just such a 35 year old shortstop.
Cal Ripken had stopped being just a baseball player for a couple of years by this point. By the time the first ticket to the game on September 6, 1995 was sold The Legend of Cal Ripken, Jr. had overtaken his actual contributions on the field. In one sense that's too bad because it underrates his incredible talents, but in another sense why not? Baseball needs bigger-than-life heroes and villains. There could never be a better hero than the tremendous shortstop with the blue collar attitude of "come to work hard every day" at a time when the money athletes were making was coming into the spotlight.
Cal Ripken was bigger than the Baltimore Orioles. That was a big problem.
The Orioles had attempted to slide Cal over to third in 1996. Manny Alexander, the 25 year old infielder from the Dominican Republic, had long been tagged as the O's shortstop of the future. On July 15, 1996, with the O's having just been swept by the Yankees in a four game series at home and sitting ten games back of New York, manager Davey Johnson put Alexander in the starting lineup at short and Cal in at third. It was the first time in 14 years that Ripken hadn't started the game at shortstop.
"Davey seems pretty adamant about it," Ripken said at the time. "I was told it was a temporary situation in which to evaluate Manny Alexander as a shortstop. It's something they're really set on doing."
The move was a disaster. Manny Alexander had never been a quality hitter in the minor leagues, and he couldn't hold his own any better in the major leagues. He had more errors in the field than hits at the plate. The experiment ended amidst boos after six games and Alexander would only get 13 more plate appearances for the Orioles. The Orioles now needed a serious, established long term replacement at shortstop. They couldn't afford to double fault this transition.
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In 1986, the University of Maine's baseball team went to the College World Series. The Black Bears lost their first two games and were eliminated, but the exposure was significant with the MLB Draft being held at the tail end of the tournament. Maine's shortstop, Mike Bordick, was a junior that year, but didn't impress scouts and went undrafted. He went on to play in the storied Cape Cod League that summer, and he was followed.
This is one of those stories that just oozes of the magic of baseball. This is where an Oakland Athletics scout, in his first year on the job, saw something in Bordick that summer. A glimmer, or a shadow of a potential future, or maybe just a guy who could fill out a minor league roster while working hard and not rocking the boat. Who knows what the rookie scout saw out on Cape Cod in the summer that nobody else saw or cared about, but Bordick was signed to a $15,000 contract as an amateur free agent in July 1986. That scout, J.P. Riciarrdi, went on to have a tremendous career. He eventually became the General Manager for the Toronto Blue Jays. He's now an Assistant GM for the New York Mets.
As a prospect, Bordick's ceiling was only supposed to be a utility infielder for the Oakland Athletics. He wasn't Oakland's long-term answer at shortstop for when their starter, former Rookie of the Year Walt Weiss, would need to be replaced. But Bordick worked hard, played strong defense, and displayed an ability to get on base in the minors, and he found himself in Oakland in 1990. That October, Weiss sprained his knee during the ALCS and had to be replaced on the World Series roster. Bordick was only a 25 year old September callup bench-warmer, but he replaced Weiss and was playing in the World Series.
Three years later, that replacement was permanent. Weiss was dogged with injuries and wasn't hitting, and he was traded to the expansion Florida Marlins. A's manager Tony LaRussa installed Bordick as the full time shortstop. After LaRussa moved on to manage in St. Louis, he tried and failed to get the Cardinals to trade for Bordick. LaRussa told Sports Illustrated in 1996 that "he's my favorite player I ever managed. Day in and day out, Bordick did more to make himself an outstanding player than anyone I've been around". Bordick wasn't a big name on the A's, those roles being reserved for the Mark McGwires, Jose Cansecos, and Rickey Hendersons of the world, but he was a reliably great shortstop.
That was everything Orioles GM Pat Gillick was looking for in 1997 when he needed to replace Cal Ripken, Jr. The negotiations between the Orioles and Bordick were finalized in December 1996 and Baltimore had a brand new left side of the infield. The final, pivotal event in the negotiations happened the night before an agreement was reached. Cal Ripken called Mike Bordick personally and told him to come to Baltimore, that he would be happy to move to third for Bordick. The Legend of Cal Ripken, Jr., the ultimate blue collar guy in a gold collar industry, grew.
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"[Mike Bordick] is one of the premier shortstops in the American League, and, with Cal Ripken at third base, he gives us a very strong left side of the infield. I don't think many balls will get between Cal and Mike." - Pat Gillick, December 1996
Where the long-tutored but ultimately under-qualified Manny Alexander had failed, the undrafted kid who was supposed to ride the bench succeeded. The Orioles team defense* jumped from 19th in the league in 1996 to 3rd in 1997, with the revamped infield leading the way. The Orioles gave up 681 runs in '97, a remarkable 222 run improvement from the previous season. Bordick still didn't hit much, but his contributions were still felt very much in the standings, as the Orioles won Opening Day and then never relinquished first place.
The Orioles faced the Seattle Mariners in the 1997 ALDS, defeating the 90-win M's three games to one. The final out of the series came off the bat of Jay Buhner, right at the shortstop for an easy 6-3 putout. Afterwards, Bordick had this to say to The Sun's Roch Kubatko:
"It took a little funny hop. That was pretty exciting, you know? Once I got rid of the ball and I saw it was on a true line, I just threw my hands in the air. I knew we had done it. That was exciting, really exciting."
*Per Baseball-Prospectus' Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metric.