In 1998, Richie Shaffer was about to realize a childhood dream, albeit at seven-years-old. Nevertheless, as the youngster was headed to Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Md. his mind was ablaze at the thought of seeing his hero in person.
Yet, when the Orioles' starting lineup raced out to their respective positions, 24-year-old rookie prospect Ryan Minor occupied the area where future Hall-of-Fame third-baseman Cal Ripken, Jr. would normally be. Unbeknownst to Shafer and his father, Rick, Ripken had decided to give himself a day off on that Sunday afternoon, September 20, 1998, the first time in 16 years, ending baseball's ironman streak at 2,632 games.
"I couldn't believe it," said Shaffer, the Clemson third-baseman who was just selected by the Tampa Bay Rays with the No. 25 overall pick in the first round of the 2012 MLB First Year Player Draft. "I was so disappointed, but I still was able to get to see him."
Despite the missed opportunity, Shaffer, 21, continued to idolize Ripken and pattern his game after him as he evolved from an "incredibly coordinated young kid" to a polished player with a skill set good enough to be drafted at the position currently owned by Evan Longoria in the big leagues.
"He played the game the right way and I always tried to model my game like his," Shaffer said when discussing Ripken. "What he was able to accomplish is remarkable, to say the least, and I think it's a testament to how dedicated he was to the game. I like to think I bring to the table the same type of passion for the game and appreciation for it."
Like Ripken, who played a majority of his career at short before moving over to third- base, Shaffer has lived a transient life on the diamond. He played just as much as a shortstop as he did as a third-baseman for his father, who served as his son's coach from his T-ball start at four-years-old until Shafer began high school.
"He had an uncanny instinct for the game," said Rick Shaffer, who recently retired as a FBI agent. "He was fluid and he had fast hands. He understood the game and caught on to things a lot quicker than the other kids."
Shaffer also spent considerable time on the mound, pitching throughout his high school days at Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C. where he was an all-state selection as a sophomore, junior and senior. He possessed a fastball that averaged 93-94 mph and he ended his high school career with a 1.65 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 88.0 innings.
His true portfolio existed as a position player, though, and he showcased this potential with a .401 batting average, leading him to become the No. 757th overall pick by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2009 Draft. Shafer chose to honor his commitment at Clemson.
"I just felt I could improve myself in all areas if I attended college," said Shaffer, who finished his junior season with a .336 batting average, 10 home runs, 46 RBIs and a .573 slugging percentage. "I improved tremendously. Three years playing in the (Atlantic Coast Conference) where you compete against some amazing teams, it prepares you for the next level."
The ACC had 50 players from the conference selected in this year's draft, the seventh straight year at least 50 players from the league have been chosen.
"Playing against such quality talent helped me become a complete hitter," Shaffer said. "I was able to establish a mature approach at the plate instead of the mentality in high school where you just grip it and rip it. I had a plan in action and learned how to deal with the ups and downs a lot better than I would have if I had come out after high school. I can drive the ball to the opposite field with consistency and I am mentally and physically ready in a way I don't think I would have been following high school."
Shaffer, who stands 6-foot-3, 210-pounds, also learned the type of versatility that fits with the Rays way, or more directly, the Maddon way. After focusing on his natural position at third in his senior season at Providence, Shafer was asked by Clemson coach Jack Leggett to move to first.
"There was just a need at first because (Ben Paulsen) had just been drafted by the Rockies and coach wanted my bat in the lineup," said Shaffer, a two-time First-Team All- ACC selection. "I was able to transition well because as an infielder on the left side of the field, you're used to getting balls hit hard to you often."
With junior John Hinson manning third, Shaffer was relegated to first for two seasons, one year longer than he had expected.
"I thought it was going to just be a short stay, but it turned into something longer," Shaffer said.
Shaffer still managed to produce an epic performance at first, committing just three errors in two seasons for a fielding percentage of .996 to help him become one of the top defensive first basemen in Clemson history. In fact, Shaffer set a school record without making an error in 600 chances.
Then, just like that, his career as a first-baseman at Clemson was over when Leggett moved him back to third.
"He was ready and we needed him at third," Leggett said. "He had made the sacrifice for us by moving over to the other side of the field and it was only fair to him to let him play at third again. It took him just a bit to get re-acclimated, but once he became comfortable again, he showed how impressive a third-baseman he is."
Shaffer committed only 11 errors and had a .938 fielding percentage during the 2012 campaign in which the Tigers went 35-28 and ended their season with a 4-3 loss to South Carolina in the championship game of the Columbia Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The junior infielder became the first Tiger in history to be named First-Team All-ACC at two different infield positions in a career.
The change was a pleasant one for Shaffer because he was back home.
"It's where I began playing and it's where I felt the most comfortable," Shaffer said. "I made some errors early on that I normally wouldn't have because I was just trying to prove to everyone this was where I belonged. It took a little bit for the game-time speed and the internal clock to return, but the more I played, the more comfortable I got."
Shaffer made just four errors over the last 30 games, a demonstration of how effective he can be as a corner infielder and a big reason why the Rays drafted him.
"His hands work well," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "We also value flexibility, to the extent that he can move around and play first and third and corner outfield is only going to make him that much more valuable. For now, we're anxious to get him signed, get him out there playing, and at the end of the day his bat is going to be the reason he's called up to the big leagues and not necessarily his defense, but having that flexibility will only help."
Shaffer's ability to showcase his power in college helped him shine in the eyes of Tampa Bay management, especially after the NCAA implemented the re-engineering of bats before the 2011 collegiate season.
"The players that have been able to maintain their power numbers after the change is a true sign of what impact they can have on the next level," Friedman told me back in February when we discussed Mikie Mahtook, the LSU outfielder drafted by the Rays in 2011 and now playing with the Charlotte Stone Crabs.
Using the new aluminum bat that mirrored the effect of a wooden one, Shaffer batted .315 (70-for-222) with 15 doubles, two triples and 13 home runs in 2011 after batting .323 (51-for-158) with 11 doubles and seven home runs in his freshman year.
"It was night and day between the old bats and the new ones," Shaffer said. "The sweet spot on the bat was a lot smaller and you really had to barrel it up to get a solid hit. With the old bats, you could get jammed inside and still manage a hit. The swing speed was much slower and it weighed similar to a wood bat."
"He's one of the better hitters I've seen in college baseball in a long time," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner told The Post and Courier two weeks ago before the start of the region tournament.
For perspective, Tanner, a three-time National Coach of the Year and Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year, is in his 16th season as head coach at the University of South Carolina. He has been an assistant coach for Team USA in the Olympics and served as the Head Coach of Team USA in 2003, leading the team to a silver medal in the Pan American Games.
Tanner coached current Major Leaguers like Brian Roberts (Orioles) and Justin Smoak (Mariners) and coached against SEC players such as Erik Hinske (Braves), Gordon Beckham (White Sox), Jeff Keppinger (Rays), Aaron Hill (Diamondbacks), J.P. Arencibia (Blue Jays) and Todd Helton (Rockies).
The Rays realize the complete type of hitter Shaffer is and it's another reason they had him at the top of their list.
"He brings that," Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison said. "He's a patient hitter. He's a real good fastball hitter. We've seen him against good competition for a long time. We've always liked his bat and his power. He's continued to develop and we've got a good guy."
Shaffer, who, as a marketing major, hopes to return to Clemson to earn his degree, expects the biggest challenge to be facing pitchers who challenge him in every situation.
"In college, there were many times when a man was at second and first was open and I knew a walk was coming," said Shaffer, who had 125 career walks with 63 in his junior year. "I'm looking forward to being challenged by pitchers, though. It will be exciting."
Another daunting challenge will be participating in camp alongside another one of his idols.
Shaffer began following Evan Longoria's career once Shaffer reached high school and he tried to assimilate parts of Longoria's swing into his. The Rays typically move their college selections faster through the system than the high school players and they expect the same with Shaffer.
"He's one of those guys who has a chance to get here relatively quickly," Friedman said. "We never move guys too quickly, but on a relative scale pretty quickly."
And that movement may be on either corner of the infield.
"Richie is a guy that adds a significant power bat to our system, which is always something that's good," Friedman said. "We've got some athletes, we've got some corner bats, but to add someone of this ilk with that power is certainly something that is going to add to the group that we have. Tremendous power, really good decision making in the box, and is a pretty good athlete. You look at a guy with that kind of power and think that he's a well below average athlete, but he's not. We're excited to get him, I feel like if we get him out playing he's one of those guys that has a chance to get here relatively quickly."
While Shaffer will do whatever is best for the organization and for his quickest ascent to the Majors, he anticipates playing and succeeding where the Iron Man finished his career.
"Wherever they feel would be the best for the team and for me to have the best opportunity to advance, that's what I will do," Shaffer said. "I've proven I'm capable of playing first and I've played in the outfield in the summer, so I have the ability to move around and adapt. But at the end of the day, my personal preference is to play third and that is what I would want for my professional career."
Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years and is currently the Senior Writer for RaysDigest.com. His other writing credits include MLB.com, the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, Kentucky Basketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @crgrand
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