The comparisons came to Ryan Mountcastle almost from the minute that the Orioles selected him with their second pick in the 2015 draft. His size, the position he played. There was an attachment to Cal Ripken Jr. long before he approached the Hall of Famer’s club record for most home runs by a rookie in a season.
Mountcastle enters today’s doubleheader needing only one to tie Eddie Murray for second place with 27 and leave him one behind Ripken, baseball’s Iron Man. Two legends of the game. Two icons in Baltimore.
One player, no longer a shortstop but often at Murray’s old position, who’s in awe of the company he’s keeping.
“It’s pretty crazy, what they’ve created here,” Mountcastle said this week after finishing his rounds of batting practice, “and just to be in the same conversation with them about anything is definitely an honor and really cool achievement.”
Murray works for the Orioles as a special advisor and community ambassador, and he threw out the ceremonial first pitch Monday afternoon on the anniversary of his 500th home run. Ripken still has his seats in the front row next to the home dugout.
“I’ve briefly talked to Eddie, and Cal, I’ve talked to him once or twice. Really good guy. Definitely an inspiration of mine,” Mountcastle said.
“Going into the draft, me being like a tall shortstop, everybody’s all about the Cal Ripken sort of comp thing, but obviously having a career like him is nearly impossible. He was a great player, and both him and Eddie, the home runs and all the accolades they have, if I can get remotely close to that it would be really cool.”
Playing in 2,632 consecutive games isn’t one of his goals. The rookie is a realist.
“That’s tough,” he said, laughing. “That’s pretty crazy. I couldn’t imagine.”
Ripken already is impressed with Mountcastle. Streaks aren’t necessary to manipulate his opinion.
“I really enjoy watching Ryan play,” Ripken said. “As everyone knows, he’s an outstanding young player and he’s having a tremendous rookie season. I really hope he can finish strong and pass Eddie and I to set the record.
“Although the year has been tough for the Orioles, it’s been encouraging watching Ryan and other young players find success at the big league level.”
Ripken’s last home run in 1982 was hit in the second game of an Oct. 1 doubleheader against the Brewers at Memorial Stadium. In the heart of an epic four-game series to decide the American League East title.
The Orioles lost the must-win game on the final day 10-2 and manager Earl Weaver retired for the first time after a tearful farewell captured on the national broadcast.
Mike Caldwell served up four homers in that game, including a pair in the seventh inning. John Selby had a solo shot and Ripken connected after Rich Dauer doubled.
Ripken hit his 26th homer on Sept. 29 in Detroit, with No. 27 coming the following night, when he broke up Jack Morris’ shutout bid in the sixth inning and the Orioles rallied for four runs in the ninth in a 6-5 win.
The first homer arrived on opening day against the Royals’ Dennis Leonard in Baltimore, when Ripken was 3-for-5 and also doubled, drove in two runs and scored twice. Murray hit a grand slam.
It was the last home run for Ripken until May 7 in Anaheim. Another power dry spell arrived after a May 12 home run, lasting until June 8 in Milwaukee.
Murray reached 26 and 27 home runs on the final game of the 1977 season on Oct. 1 at Fenway Park. Solo shots off Rick Wise in the second inning and Mike Paxton in the eighth. He went 16 games between homers before ending his drought on June 8 in Boston, and then another 20 before his solo shot off former Oriole Pat Dobson in the nightcap of a June 29 doubleheader in Cleveland.
Murray homered twice on Aug. 3 in Oakland and 26 games passed until his next, on Sept. 4 in Chicago. Eddie wasn’t as steady during his first season.
The homer against the White Sox was the first of nine to close out Murray’s rookie season.
Mountcastle slashed .255/.305/.447 with 14 home runs in 83 games in the first half, clawing back from an April that saw him go 18-for-91 (.198) with one homer and a .515 OPS in 96 plate appearances. He hit nine home runs in June and posted a .327 average and 1.015 OPS, and he received votes for Rookie of the Month in August after batting .357/.397/.786 with six doubles and eight home runs in 78 plate appearances.
“I felt like after the first month and a half I was just digging myself out of a hole the whole year, and for me to be where I’m at right now, fairly comfortable, it’s definitely cool to see,” he said.
Mountcastle hit his first home run on April 8, and 23 games passed before his second on May 7. Speculation grew that he could be Triple-A-bound for a reset.
“I know it happens to a lot of guys, a lot of better players, some really good players, have gotten sent down in the past,” said Mountcastle, who hit three homers against the Blue Jays on June 19. “That was sort of looming over, but for me to get out of that and play my game, I’m proud of it.”
The league is flooded with worthy candidates for Rookie of the Year, which often and unfairly seems to push Mountcastle out of the picture.
“We need to start talking about him more in the Rookie of the Year conversation,” said manager Brandon Hyde.
“He’s having a great year, especially after a bumpy April. He got off to a slow start, and what he’s done here these last four months, he’s been an impact player in this league and showing you the power that he has and improving defensively at first base, driving in runs. He made some great adjustments at the plate after the first month and he’s putting together a very, very strong rookie campaign.”
Murray and Ripken won the award. Reliever Gregg Olson is the last Oriole to do it, in 1989.
“There’s obviously really good rookies, and just being a part of that conversation is very cool,” Mountcastle said, “but whoever wins, it’s well deserved, and hopefully I can have a good stretch here the last few games.”
At least he’s no longer asked about his rookie status, the confusion born from his 35 games and 126 at-bats last summer after the Orioles recalled him in August.
“I remember going into that last game last year, I was told, ‘Yeah, you need like six or seven at-bats and then you lose your rookie status for next year,’ so we sort of had an eye on it going into that last game,” he said, the usual grin on his face.
“For me to get the experience last year and coming into this year still being a rookie is really cool.”
For Murray to get his feet wet, he had to dive right into his first season, playing in 160 games in 1977. He also drove in 88 runs, 11 more than Mountcastle.
“He’s really having a good year,” Murray said. “He just needs to try every year to make it better than the year before.”