Today at Mitchell & Ness we pay tribute to the Iron Man himself, Cal Ripken Jr, who made his Major League debut 31 years ago today with the Baltimore Orioles. Ripken and the Orioles hosted the Royals that day in 1981. A 2-2 game entering the bottom of the 12th inning, Ripken came on to pinch-run for Ken Singleton, and would later score the game-winning run after John Lowenstein hit a walk-off single. That run would start off the legacy of one of the greatest and most enduring players of the 80's and 90's.
Ripken was born August 24, 1951 in Havre de Grace, Maryland. His father, Cal Sr., was a long-time member of the Orioles organization, moving from player to minor league manager to big league coach, spending 36 years in the organization. Ripken Jr., along with his brother Billy, were stars at Aberdeen High School. Cal caught the interest of his father's organization and was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1978 MLB Draft by the Orioles.
Ripken rose quickly through the minors, earning plaudits for his strong fielding at shortstop and surprising power for a middle infielder. Ripken at 6'4" was the first in a new breed of strong, powerful shortstops, as a new era of five-tool shortstops would follow. The Orioles took notice, and in '81 they called up Ripken to give the O's a boost in the strange strike-shortened season. Ripken would be a bit-part player the rest of that season.
1982 is when he took the league by storm, winning AL Rookie of the Year on the back of his 28 home runs. On May 30th of that year, he would start something significant as well--his consecutive games streak. But 1983 would see Ripken earn his elite standing in a legendary O's season. Ripken led the Orioles that regular season to 98 victories, winning the AL MVP in the process. Ripken's .400 batting average in the League Championship helped the Orioles reach the World Series. It would take just five games for the Orioles to defeat the Phillies, as Ripken took home his first and only World Series ring.
The next decade would see the Orioles unable to capture the American League East. But Ripken continued his game streak as he continued to put up unprecedented offensive numbers from a shortstop to go along with his strong defense. His younger brother Billy would join him in the majors in 1987 (managed by their father Cal Sr.), as the Ripkens formed the Orioles middle infield pairing for five years.
1991 would see Ripken post perhaps the greatest season ever by a shortstop, as his .323 batting average, 34 home runs and 114 RBI's and a Gold Glove win earned Ripken his second AL MVP. This is not even to mention his All Star Game performance, where he took home the game's MVP and Home Run Derby title. Ripken's play helped lead the Orioles into a new era, as the team moved from Memorial Stadium into the revolutionary Camden Yards.
1996 would prove a massive year for Ripken, as he broke Lou Gehrig's consective game streak of 2,216. Ripken's Orioles would return to the postseason for the first time in 13 years that offseason. Baltimore defeated the Indians in the Divisional Series, but fell to the Yankees in the League Championship. The Orioles would get there revenge in 1997 as the disposed of New York in the Divisional Series, but Cleveland got their revenge in the League Championship. That defeat would mark Ripken's last game in the playoffs.
With the consecutive games streak firmly in hand, Ripken decided to end the streak on his terms. Rookie third baseman Ryan Minor found out he was starting the final game of the 1998 season against the Yankees, while Ripken started on the bench for the first time in 16 years. After the Orioles recorded their first out, everyone in Camden Yards gave Ripken a standing applause as one of baseball's most enduring records ended.
2000 would see Ripken collect his 3,000th hit. With a legacy that could not be more enhanced, Ripken decided he would retire after the 2001 season. September 11th forced the last game of the season to be rescheduled to be played in New York, but the game moved to Oriole Stadium so Ripken's final game could be in front of the Baltimore faithful. Ripken's legendary #8 was retired after the game.
Mitchell & Ness remembers that day 31 years ago, and we commemorate it by offering some Cal Ripken Jr. authentics. Here is our 2001 edition, worn in Ripken's final season: