We’re coming up on yet another anniversary in Birdland.
35 years ago this Monday – on July 11, 1987 – Bill Ripken made his major league debut for the Orioles at Memorial Stadium.
In a game that has been regularly featured on MASN’s Orioles Classics rebroadcasts, Bill went 0-for-3 with a walk in four plate appearances in the team’s 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
His first base hit in the big leagues would come five days later – on July 16 – when he sent a first-inning pitch from the Royals’ Charlie Liebrandt into the left center field gap at what was then known as Royals Stadium in Kansas City.
Bill Ripken’s promotion from Triple-A Rochester went hand-in-hand with the release of veteran Rick Burleson, who had been signed as a free agent the previous winter.
The 35-year-old Burleson had spent his entire career as a shortstop, but consistent shoulder issues had sapped his throwing ability. The Orioles’ hope was that the transition to second base would be a smooth one and that Burleson’s .284 batting average in 1986 for the Angels would mean solid production in Baltimore.
But it didn’t work out; Burleson hit just .209 with two home runs and 14 RBIs in 206 at bats with the Orioles and the club released him on July 11 when he was still 38 games shy of reaching a threshold where his 1988 contract would become guaranteed.
So with Burleson out of the picture, Bill Ripken got the call from Rochester, where he had been hitting .286/.344/.349 and playing a solid defensive second base.
The 1987 Orioles, it’s fair to say, were not a team looking to embark on a lengthy, difficult rebuild.
The team had slumped badly at the end of the 1986 season – finishing in last place for the first time in team history.
But it was a team filled with veterans – including eventual Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr. and Eddie Murray. And it was led on the pitching side by Mike Boddicker, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor.
In the offseason, the team had added even more veterans, including the aforementioned Burleson.
1986 World Series MVP had been signed as a free agent away from the New York Mets and was penciled in at third base in his age 34 season. And veteran catcher Terry Kennedy was acquired via trade from San Diego to take over behind the plate.
The team spent most of April and May dancing around the .500 mark before a stretch of 10 wins in 11 games from May 14 through May 28 left the O’s in second place with a 26-20 record, just four games out of first place in the eastern division.
But that would be the high water mark, as the team went a dismal 5-23 in June, falling into sixth place where they’d remain for the balance of the season.
Bill Ripken’s Historic Arrival
As we all know now, Bill Ripken’s first game on July 11, 1987 marked the first time a father had ever managed two of his own sons on a Major League team, as Cal Sr. was in his first and only full season as the team’s skipper.
Naturally, there were also questions about nepotism; did the fact that his father was the manager and his brother the star shortstop have anything to do with Bill’s promotion?
General manager Hank Peters told the Sun that Ripken was promoted “because of how he has played. And fortunately for him, because of his position. Second base has troubled us.”
For his part, Cal Ripken Sr. stated, “I’d rather win ballgames than worry about history. I’ll have plenty of time in later years for the enjoyment of the family part of this…the important thing is to help a club win.”
When the move was announced, Cal Ripken Jr. told the Baltimore Sun that he knew his brother was ready defensively, saying, “He’s always been real mature in the field. We knew he was going to be a good defensive player. The question was how much he would develop as a hitter.”
That seemed to be the question throughout Bill’s career in Baltimore: would he hit well enough to stay in the lineup?
He certainly got off to a good start in that regard, hitting .308/.363/.372 over the final three months (58 games) of the 1987 season.
That was indeed solid enough production to remain in the lineup and form an outstanding double play combination with his brother.
But 1988 season was a different story – on so many levels.
The team got off to an 0-6 start and then fired Cal Ripken, Sr. as manager. Frank Robinson took over and the losing streak grew to 21 games before mercifully coming to an end.
Bill played 150 games for the Birds in 1988 but hit just .207/.260/.258. His OPS+ dropped by more than 50% from 99 in 1987 to just 48 in 1989.
He rebounded – as did the team – in 1989 and hit .239/.284/.305 in 115 games as the Orioles remained in contention until the season’s next-to-last day.
And in 1990, he posted his best full season from an offensive standpoint, hitting .291/.342/.387 in 129 games (for an OPS+ of 107).
Bill Ripken would remain the team’s primary second baseman in 1991 and 1992 before being replaced by free agent Harold Reynolds for the 1993 season. Bill moved on to Texas, where he hit just .189 in 50 games for the Rangers.
He would spend time in Cleveland – and Triple-A – in 1995 before returning to the O’s in 1996 for 57 games (but just 147 plate appearances) split between second and third base.
The 1997 season would see Bill return to Texas…and he’d move on to Detroit in 1998 for the final 27 games of his 12-year major league career.
How Bill Ripken Stacks Up Among All-Time Orioles 2nd Basemen
All totaled, Bill Ripken played seven years in Baltimore and hit .243 with 15 home runs and 180 RBI in 724 games.
So where does Bill Ripken rank all-time among Orioles’ second basemen?
In terms of games played, Bill Ripken is fourth on the team’s all-time list.
Orioles Games Played at 2nd Base
1. Brian Roberts – 1,213
2. Rich Dauer – 964
3. Davey Johnson – 947
4. Bill Ripken – 689
5. Bobby Grich – 668
6. Jonathan Schoop – 617
7. Jerry Adair – 582
8. Billy Gardner – 570
9. Jerry Hairston, Jr. – 438
10. Roberto Alomar – 394
In looking objectively at the players on that list – those who have played roughly 400 games or more at second base for the Orioles – it’s hard to put Bill Ripken’s name at or near the top.
After all, Roberto Alomar is a Hall of Famer (though he played just three years in Baltimore.) Davey Johnson was a key part of four pennant winning teams. And Bobby Grich – another player whose time in Baltimore was short – is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.
When comparing the Orioles’ careers of the top six in terms of games played – Dauer, Grich, Johnson, Ripken, Roberts and Schoop – it’s interesting to look at the WAR (wins above replacement) totals compiled in orange and black.
Orioles Career WAR Leaders at 2nd base (minimum 600 games played)
1. Bobby Grich (1970-1976) – 36.0
2. Brian Roberts (2001-2013) – 28.8
3. Davey Johnson (1965-1972) – 20.1
4. Jonathan Schoop (2013-2018) – 15.2
5. Rich Dauer (1976-1985) – 14.4
6. Bill Ripken (1987-1992, 1996) – 5.4
If we were to make an exception to the games played minimum for Alomar, he did compile 12.5 WAR in his three seasons, so he would bump Bill Ripken down a notch on this list.
There’s no argument to be made that Bill Ripken deserves a plaque in Cooperstown, of course. But he did have a relatively long and successful career in the middle of the diamond in Baltimore.
His solid defense – along with the history-making aspect of his family’s story – make him one of the more interesting players of the past several decades in Birdland.
And he made his debut 35 years ago this Monday, July 11, 1987.