#1 - Cal Ripken, Jr., SS/3B (1981-2001)
An entire generation of baseball fans, myself included, grew up thinking that baseball and Cal Ripken were basically the same thing. When Ripken began his consecutive games streak on May 30, 1982, I was three years old. I may have not even been aware that baseball was a thing. And when his streak came to an end on September 20, 1998, I was a sophomore in college. I was 19 years old before I ever saw an Orioles game without Cal Ripken. It's crazy, if you think about it.
Yes, Ripken's streak of 2,632 consecutive games is the thing that he is remembered most for in his Hall of Fame career. By the end it had grown into something uncontrollable, I think. But Ripken never intended for it to start in the first place. He was just a really, really good baseball player. The kind that any manager would want in the lineup every single day.
Ripken was drafted in the second round of the 1978 amateur draft by the Orioles. The Orioles had two picks before they got to him. In the first round they drafted someone named Robert Boyce, a third baseman who never made it past A ball. Earlier in the second round, they drafted Larry Sheets. The draft is a funny thing.
The first part of Ripken's career was rather charmed. He was called up in August 1981 after a strike by MLB came to an end, and played on a team that came within one game of going to the playoffs. Then in 1982 the Orioles won 94 games, Ripken took home Rookie of the Year honors, and they again fell just one game short of the playoffs. And in his third year, 1983, the Orioles won the World Series and Ripken was named A.L. Most Valuable Player. He must have thought that baseball was always going to be like that, winning awards and playing every season with the postseason on the line.
It wasn't, of course. As the Orioles went from perennial contender to basement dwellers in the 1980s, Cal Ripken continued on as one of the best players in baseball. From 1984-1991 the Orioles finished above fourth place just once (the miracle 1989 season), but it wasn't because of Cal. In those five seasons he hit .277/.352/.462 and became something rarely seen in baseball at that time: a power-hitting shortstop. In his first ten years in baseball he hit 259 home runs and 340 doubles, and in 1991 he put up one of the best seasons in Orioles history, and easily the best year of his career.
Maybe Cal wanted to send Memorial Stadium out in style, since 1991 was the last year of the old ballpark. In addition to playing the absolutely stellar defense that he put up his entire career, Cal hit had 210 hits on the year including 34 home runs and 46 doubles. So good was his all-around play that he was voted the league MVP despite the fact that his team won just 67 games. As you're probably aware, that hardly ever happens. But there was just no denying his amazing season. In addition to the MVP he was awarded the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger. FanGraphs calculates that Cal's 1991 season was worth 10.6 WAR, the highest single season total in Orioles history (The top three seasons all belong to Cal).
Despite being one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, the 1991 Gold Glove was the first awarded to Ripken in his career. Other shortstops were flashier, diving all over the field and thus outshined Cal in the voting. But those who watched him every day knew exactly how good he was on defense. At 6'4" and 200+ pounds, it wasn't Cal's style to make a lot of dives. He didn't need to anyway, because he knew so much about every hitter on other teams and about every pitcher on his team that he was almost always perfectly positioned if the ball was hit his way. It's easy for your defense to go unheralded when every play you make looks like an easy ground ball. And his arm was so strong that he could play deep in the hole if needed and still make a strong throw to first base.
It turned out that 1991 was kind of Cal's swan song as far as offense goes. He continued to get on base at a decent clip but his power began to wane as he played into his thirties. Could it be that playing every single day sapped his strength? Who knows. But even with a less prolific bat, Cal was still a very valuable player thanks to the high level of defense he played.
In 1996, Cal was back in the playoffs for the first time since he caught the last out of the 1983 World Series. He was on fire in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, going 8-for-18 with three doubles. He was less productive in the ALCS, although he did have two two-hit games. In 1997 he was hot for the duration of the playoffs, despite a below average showing at the plate in the regular season. He went 7-for-16 with two doubles and two walks in the ALDS against Seattle, and in the ALCS against Cleveland he had eight hits, including two doubles and a home run, and he walked four times. Sadly for both Cal and for all of us Orioles fans, he couldn't hit the team into the World Series.
As is true with so many baseball players, Cal Ripken probably should have retired a few seasons earlier than he did. He lasted until 2001 in an Orioles uniform. His last game at Camden Yards was supposed to be September 23, 2001, but on account of the terrorist attacks the schedule had to be rearranged and he actually played his last home game on October 6th. I was at the game on September 23rd, having spent more money than I could afford on the tickets when I thought it was my last chance to see him. The Orioles were a mess in 2001, but Cal sent the crowd home happy with the very last home run of his career (#431, if you're counting). On his actual last day, he went 0-for-3 and the game ended with him on deck.
Baseball has never seen a player quite like Cal Ripken, and probably never will again. He played in 2,632 consecutive games, shattering the previously held record of 2,130. He went to 19 straight All Star games, 16 of which he was elected into by the fans. He won two MVPs, eight Silver Sluggers, and one Rookie of the Year Award. His final season was celebrated by all of baseball as every team he visited gave him going away presents and opposing crowds gave standing ovations. He was elected into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in in 2007 with 98.5% of the vote. He is one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history and the #1 Oriole of all time.