Cal Ripken Jr. Talks Derek Jeter, MLB's Best Division and Favorite Shortstops

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor IMarch 4, 2014

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Earlier today, Bleacher Report had an exclusive opportunity to speak with 19-time American League All-Star and Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

Aside from Ripken's broadcasting work, the former iron man is working with Transitions adaptive lenses, spreading awareness about eyesight problems and encouraging parents to remain diligent with testing their children.

I had the opportunity to represent Bleacher Report in a wide-ranging conversation with Ripken Jr. that touched on his Mt. Rushmore of shortstops, Derek Jeter's farewell tour, instant replay and the strong AL East. 

Bleacher Report: Derek Jeter recently announced that 2014 would be his final season. You experienced a similar farewell in 2001. What were your thoughts when Jeter made his decision

Ripken Jr.: I was surprised at first, but Derek is a thoughtful person and thinker when it comes to the game. I'm sure he's ready for this if he came to that decision. I'm interested in talking to him soon to gauge how he's feeling, both physically and mentally.

B/R: Do you expect him to play well after missing almost all of 2013 due to injury issues?

Ripken Jr.: I do. The decision to announce his future now was healthy. It will allow him to give and pour all his energy out on the final season on the field. I think he watched Mariano Rivera exit the right way and have an excellent season. He probably wants to do something similar.

But I do wonder if he will have second thoughts. If he performs well, I would be curious to see if doubt creeps in about actually retiring.

B/R: Mt. Rushmore has become a popular topic, regardless of subject. Who would be on your Mt. Rushmore of shortstops?

Ripken Jr.: You're going to make me do this (chuckles)? Alright. Of course, Honus Wagner needs to be part of this because of what he accomplished, but I didn't see him. I'm not young, but I'm not that old yet. Of the guys I watched, my four favorites would have to be:

Ozzie Smith: I wished that I could emulate him in the field. He was magical at shortstop. I can't remember a ball he didn't get to during his prime.

Omar Vizquel: He literally made you leave your mouth open and gasp. During my time in the American League, he was a treat to share the field and the shortstop position with. He took so many risks—diving, flipping the ball behind his back, routes to the ball—yet was so efficient. He was special.

Troy Tulowitzki: He's the guy now. All the tools—power, speed, arm, defense, strength—are there for him to go down as one of the great shortstops ever. The only question is health. He's missed some time (151 games missed over the last two seasons), but he's the best when he's in there. If he can stay healthy, the sky is the limit. 

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Derek Jeter: Probably the best clutch player ever. Offensively, his accomplishments speak for themselves. Three thousand hits, more than 200 home runs and a great batting average.

Defensively, I know there have been some critics. Range and defensive metrics haven't always touted him as a good defender, but I always saw him make the right play.

I'll put it this way: Of all the shortstops in history, he's the one I want out there in Game 7 of the World Series. Put the bat in his hands or hit the ball to him in a one-run game. He'll make the play to win a championship for you.

B/R: You were one of the first big shortstops, paving the way for guys like Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Tulowitzki. In Boston, Xander Bogaerts is on the path to stardom. Is the big shortstop what teams should be looking for?

Ripken Jr.: Different styles work for different guys. All those guys you mentioned—let's throw Manny Machado from Baltimore in there since his background is at short—move or moved really well. That's first. They all have strong arms and range. Clearly, those players provided offense to the position, but I think stature and size is overrated. If you can handle shortstop and hit, teams will find a way to pencil you into the lineup.

B/R: With spring training underway, who is a player you are watching?

Ripken Jr.: I'm interested to see how Manny Machado recovers from his knee injury and how quickly he can get back to Baltimore. Based on last year, we are watching a great player develop. Defense, doubles, quick wrists, power. Machado has it all.

B/R: Machado is part of a deep, talented lineup in one of baseball's best divisions. How would you handicap the AL East race?

Ripken Jr.: For me, it's the best division in baseball. In fact, the schedule is unfair to these teams because they have to play each other 18-plus times per season. It's hard for me to believe that this division won't have three playoff teams by October, but that's probably true because they'll beat up on each other so much during the season.

As for predictions? It's hard to say, but don't just give it to New York or Boston. Sure, the Yankees spent money and the Red Sox are the defending champs, but the other three teams—Tampa, Toronto and Baltimore—all have a shot.

Tampa is always in the mix. Even if they need to rely on young players, they find a way to play meaningful games in August and September.

Toronto is due for a better year. Last year, was unfortunate for them. I really thought—and I think they thought—the talent was there to win. It's still there.

Baltimore is proven now. All those years of losing is in the past. This is a playoff-caliber team for Buck Showalter, especially when you factor in the recent additions of Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez.

B/R: Rule changes, including expanded instant replay and home plate collisions, will be a big theme of the Cactus and Grapefruit League schedule. Are you in favor of the changes?

Ripken Jr.: I'm skeptical of replay. A manager challenge system? That's football to me. When I think of that type of replay system, I think of the NFL. I don't love the idea of the responsibility falling on the manager. That just adds to their in-game responsibility.

Don't get me wrong, I think technology is good for the game. But I'd just like to see corrections made by replay. If it's obviously wrong, it can be fixed quickly.

Eliminating unnecessary collisions at home plate is a great rule tweak. I've always thought that home plate should be treated like second base. Contact is allowed, but the idea of running through someone is just going to lead to injuries. 

During my time, Mike Scioscia was the best at blocking home plate. Because he was so big and strong, runners didn't want to challenge him by lowering their shoulder. They looked for a way around him or an area of the plate they could swipe. Hopefully, that's what these plays will look like now.

B/R: Are you still interested in managing or coaching?

Ripken Jr.: I'll say to you what I've always said when asked: I'm open to opportunities. 

Now, does that mean I want to be a manager? It could be, if the time is right. Honestly, I don't have a strategy to make this happen or a way back into the game. But I've been away for long enough to know that I want to be around baseball again. 

B/R: You're passionate about Transitions. How did you get involved with the company?

Ripken Jr.: It started when my eyesight became an issue. Now I need corrective lenses, and this product is great for both inside and outside use. Beyond that, I never realized the eyesight problem among children. One of four kids suffer from vision problems, but most don't realize it. Parents need to be diligent about making and attending appointments. 

Final Thoughts

After spending 21 years in the majors—including time in the '80s, '90s and 2000s—Ripken's perspective on how the game is evolving is fascinating.

As expected, the AL East and tall, powerful shortstops peaked the interest of the former two-time AL MVP. If, or when, Manny Machado moves back to shortstop in Baltimore, the division could have two stars cut from the Ripken cloth.

Interestingly, Ripken isn't sure how replay will work and has doubts on the system in place. Unlike some "old school" analysts, the concern wasn't over technology but rather allowing managers and challenges to be involved at all. 

The all-time great player once again acknowledged an interest in a full-time gig within baseball. If a team hires Ripken in the near future, a wealth of baseball knowledge will enter an organization. 

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