Shameless bandwagoning on the mods' great 1997 series follows.
For the 1997 season, the Orioles moved Cal Ripken Jr. from shortstop to third base. In a recent post, Andrew_G broke down the tonic impact the move had on the O’s defense. But how did the move impact Cal? Such a move is often a signal that a player is hitting the steep down slope of the age curve. Witness Miguel Tejada – moved to 3B in 2010 and already wearing a Norfolk Tides jersey.
Cal, though, found a characteristically positive spin to put on it. He published a memoir in 1997 entitled The Only Way I Know which concluded with stories of the 1996 season. His last words were:
For the following year, 1997, Baltimore acquired Oakland free agent Mike Bordick to play shortstop. So ends my career at that position, and so begins, after fifteen-plus seasons, a second career at third base. The way I look at things, this isn’t an end, but a beginning. Let’s see what happens.
That could be the public-relations voice of a guy with a real gift for saying things people like to hear. But the rest of the book provides evidence that supports this upbeat outlook.
First, he had made the move before. It was one of the first things that happened to him as a pro. Drafted as a shortstop (which was news to me), Cal was one of two SS on his team at Bluefield when an injury to the starting 3B required a switch. A guy named Steve Espinoza (remember him?) was considered the more promising SS and Cal moved over. He valued it as a learning opp:
At shortstop, I’d still been having some problems putting together all the elements of the play. … But at third base, the ball gets to you faster off the bat, and those extra microseconds make all the difference. The required actions can be singled out and separated: catch or block, regroup, throw. You have some time. … I wasn’t gun shy. Almost immediately I took a ball in the throat, but I shook it off. That move to third base turned out to be natural and I think it was important for me at that stage of my development. (p.53)
Another injured 3B in A ball kept Cal at the position, and by AA in Charlotte he had settled in there. Bobby Bonner was the SS of the future by the time they both arrived in AAA Rochester. Cal playfully includes his Fleer rookie card in the picture section: Cal Ripken, Jr. – Third Base.
What’s more, he’d never been able to forget the idea. He notes (p.221) "There’s always been talk about when I’d return to third base" and then gives three pages of examples: 1985...1988...89...92. He describes discussing it at length with Davey Johnson in 1996 and concludes
the issue was never whether I’d agree to move to third base. In the first place, I don’t have to ‘agree.’ If Davey or any other manager says jump, I jump. (p.316)
At one point, Cal notes he was also encouraged by the example of Robin Yount, who won his 2nd MVP after his move from short to the outfield.
How does Cal hold up by the second career standard for HoF shortstops? I just grabbed a few indicators. Cal begins his second career late, at 36, and it comprises 5 full seasons ending at age 40. In that period, his WAR averaged roughly 1.2. He put up a 144 OPS+ season in 1999. He was an All-Star every year.
Robin Yount and Ernie Banks both began second careers much younger. Yount went to the OF at 29 and played 9 seasons there. His average WAR for the period was higher, 2.7, and he OPS+ed over 125 four times in the period, with a high of 152. His MVP in 1989 came a year later than Cal’s second one, at age 33. But he was out of the game at 37 and was never an All-Star again as an outfielder.
Banks moved to first base at 31 and was there 10 seasons. Like Cal, he played until 40. Over that period, his average WAR was only 1.05. His highest OPS+ was 118, in 1968 -- the last season he played over 100 games. Banks scattered 4 All-Star appearances across the 10 years.
So after the shift, Cal acquits himself well against these peers. He was right to expect a second career where he continued to add value. The disappointing part is that his optimism was also colored by his belief that, after the 1996 success, the Orioles were back. He had described a decline in the organization through the 80s to the point where "our fans were the last vestige of the Oriole Way." (p.160) He was expecting a new career that corresponded with the Oriole Way restored. Instead, all he got was The Last Good Year.