#1 - SS/3B Cal Ripken Jr. (1981-2001)
For fans of the 29 other teams in MLB, Cal Ripken Jr. is probably not much more than just another Hall of Famer. Sure, “everyone” remembers The Streak, and playing in 2,632 consecutive baseball games is reason enough on its own to be a part of baseball legend, but there are legends and there are legends. In Baltimore, in Maryland, where Cal is the local hero, the son of the longtime coach, Cal is a legend, and one we’ve got all to ourselves, since he played every one of his career 3,001 games for the Baltimore Orioles..
In the whole of the voting for Camden Chat’s Top 50 Greatest Orioles of All Time list, there was one unanimous choice, and it is this one: Cal Ripken Jr. at the top. Maybe if I was old enough to have woken up the day after the Orioles won the 1966 World Series and seen that picture of Brooks Robinson leaping towards gleeful teammates on the cover of The Sun, or maybe if I had seen that famous play of Brooks in the 1970 World Series live instead of watching it on YouTube a hundred times, I’d feel differently.
Instead, The Streak was 270 games old on the day that I was born, having begun on May 30, 1982, the day after Cal got the second game of a doubleheader off. On the day that 2,632 did not turn into 2,633, I was 14 years old. Every Orioles game that happened in my life up to that point, whether I was there or not, whether I was watching or not, I know for a fact that Cal Ripken Jr. was in the starting lineup.
The only other sort of MLB fan who has ever existed who might have been able to say something similar was a Yankees fan born in the early 1920s, who was alive for Lou Gehrig’s 2,130 consecutive games.
The other thing for someone around my age about Cal and everything he did on the field is that for most of The Streak, the Orioles were the only sports story in Baltimore. The Colts left town before I had any memory of them, and the Ravens only arrived well into a childhood of loving the Orioles.
Cal was not only the Orioles, he was Baltimore sports. For kids like me, he was there on the “Milk - it does a body good” posters that half of everyone had. If you tried to get out of going to school or some other thing, a parent might have said, “Would Cal have stopped The Streak for (minor complaint)?” The only possible answer, unless you were actively puking, was a sullen no.
Since I’ve never seen the Orioles win it all, the record-breaking 2,131 game and all the ceremony surrounding it remains my proudest moment as an Orioles fan. The victory lap still makes me tear up a bit 25 years later.
Playing little league in Reisterstown, every kid and every parent knew about the Cal Ripken house, the one he sold a few years ago to Adam Jones. This, too, was part of the legend, and it certainly wasn’t limited to people who were kids around when I was. It’s not people my age who were out there every time there was an opening in the dark years, wanting Cal to be the manager or even the general manager. To this day there are people who want Peter Angelos to sell the team to Cal, specifically, as if that would be the cure to everything that has ever ailed the Orioles in the 21st century.
None of this stuff has much of anything to do with how Cal actually played as a baseball player, except for this: If he wasn’t great, if he wasn’t from Maryland, if he wasn’t the son of an Orioles prospect at birth and the son of a coach in the organization through his childhood, all of that other stuff would have been different.
It’s easy to look back on a Hall of Famer’s career and feel like it all must have been inevitable, because if someone is that good then they will find a way to be good, but it all could have happened differently for Cal. He was only chosen late in the second round of the 1978 draft; maybe another team would have decided to pluck the son of the Orioles coach.
Maybe the Orioles would have ended up deciding Cal was better off as a pitcher. Maybe Earl Weaver might have even had less patience with Cal after a 1981 20-game debut season where he only hit .128/.150/.128, or the next year, he might not have made that fateful decision to make Cal his shortstop. Maybe Cal’s career would not have intersected for several years in Baltimore with his brother, Billy, which also enhanced the Ripken legend.
Or maybe Cal might have gotten dinged just bad enough early on in The Streak, before it ever became The Streak, that he might have had to miss a day. Once The Streak was its own thing, there were the other near-misses, like when Cal hurt his knee when Seattle’s Bill Haselman started a fight, or any of the 45 times that Cal was hit by a pitch from 1982 to 1995. A little bit less luck about any of these things and it all would have been over before it was ever a legend.
Not that Cal would have needed The Streak, or the also-a-record consecutive 8,264 innings played streak, to have a Hall of Fame career. Racking up 3,184 career hits while being the first of the new breed of shortstops would have been enough, and the fact that this also came with the hardware of a Rookie of the Year award in 1982, MVP crowns in 1983 and 1991, being on the World Series champions in his 1983 MVP year, and 19 straight All-Star selections certainly did not hurt.
A quality that the game’s truest greats all share, and Cal is no exception, is that you can look at their Baseball Reference player page and marvel at something new every time. Right now I find myself fixated on just how good Cal was from his 1982 ROY campaign on through to his second MVP season in 1991. Over that ten years of baseball, he batted a combined .280/.350/.469 - all in a time where shortstop was the worst-hitting position league-wide.
In Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement, that decade added up to 69.8 WAR - a Hall of Fame-caliber career on its own, without even considering the 26.1 WAR he added in his second decade in the league. He averaged about 7 WAR per season for a whole decade. It’s amazing. The 2019 season, the last regular-length MLB season, saw eleven players cross 7 WAR for just that one season. It’s hard to be that good once, let alone for as long as Cal was. And Cal stayed good almost to the very end, only dipping below 1.4 WAR for the first time since 1981 in his final season in 2001.
Being a Baltimore sports fan through and through, I’m always primed to notice slights against my favorite teams. A true fact about Cal is that, along with being the best player in baseball in 1983, he was also the best player in baseball in 1984, when he put up a whopping 10.0 WAR. This was the first double-digit WAR season in Orioles history, topped only by Cal himself with an even-more-incredible 11.5 WAR in 1991.
Cal’s 1984 season, coming on the heels of his 1983 campaign, gets less attention. Perhaps that’s because the Orioles only came in fifth place in 1984, even though Cal’s bat remained just as good as it was in 1983 while league-wide offense dipped slightly. The collective group of doofuses who voted for the 1984 AL MVP gave Cal one tenth-place vote - one point, 27th place, for this amazing season. The winner and third place finisher were relief pitchers.
It’s not like this matters. Cal doesn’t need that third MVP award to ascend to some even greater level of baseball greatness. He got accolades during a long career and surely does not need me or any other Orioles fan to get indignant on his behalf. Now he’s in the Hall of Fame after being named on 98.5% of ballots to earn induction in 2007, his first eligible year.
Cal probably doesn’t need me to get indignant over the eight voters who somehow left him off of their Hall of Fame ballots, either, but I’m still indignant anyway. Idiots, the bunch of them. The five people who apparently voted for Cal but not Tony Gwynn, who got 97.6% that same year, also should be, but probably were not and never will be, ashamed of themselves.
A lot of good and great players have played for the Orioles in the team’s 66 years in existence. We’ve been counting them down on Camden Chat since June. But there can only be one number one. Cal was an Oriole the day he was born, an Oriole every day of his professional baseball career, and after he retired, he sailed into the Hall of Fame as an Oriole.
None of the other great Orioles can say all of those things. That’s why Cal is our #1. I’d be very happy as an Orioles fan if anyone ever came along to challenge for Cal’s crown. I just won’t be holding my breath.