PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays third base prospect Richie Shaffer grew up idolizing Cal Ripken, putting up an "Iron Man" poster on the wall next to his bed in his Charlotte, N.C., childhood home.
Shaffer, 22, Tampa Bay's first-round pick in 2012, wore Ripken's No. 8 from Little League through his college days at Clemson. So he was devastated when the first time he went to see Ripken in person, it turned out to be the day the Orioles Hall of Famer sat out for the first time in 16 seasons, snapping his record streak of 2,632 games played.
"It was pretty wild," Shaffer said. "An interesting day."
It was Sept. 20, 1998, and Shaffer, then 7, went to Camden Yards with his grandmother for a Sunday night game against the Yankees. With the season winding down, and Orioles not in contention, Ripken decided to snap the streak where it started, and rookie Ryan Minor played in his place.
"I remember walking around the terrace, and the guy that is reading out the lineup was at third base and didn't say 'Ripken,' " Shaffer said. "I'm like, 'What?' We went to the scoreboard and it said someone else. I didn't put two and two together until the game finally started and he's not playing. I'm like, 'No!' "
Shaffer, now with Class A Charlotte, plays third, as Ripken did in the final years of his career. But Shaffer may also eventually switch positions because three-time All-Star Evan Longoria is entrenched in that spot, signed to a $100 million extension through 2022. While Shaffer prefers third, he understands the situation, saying Longoria is the "gold standard," someone he studies on film to see what he can incorporate into his game.
Shaffer has been more focused on adjusting to the learning curve during his first professional season, having struggled at the plate in making the big jump from Hudson Valley. He hit .213 in June for the Stone Crabs before making strides, though he is up to just .246 with five homers in 78 games.
"I think it was honestly good for me to experience a little failure, because up until then, I hadn't really experienced a whole lot of prolonged failure," Shaffer said. "I struggled a bit in the early weeks and months, and you just have to work through some adversity, stay optimistic and trust your talent."
The Rays believed Shaffer was the top college hitting talent in the draft last year, selecting the Clemson junior 25th overall. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman said it'd be Shaffer's bat that would bring him to the big leagues, and they thought he could move through the system "relatively quickly."
But after Shaffer's impressive first foray into pro ball, hitting .308 for Hudson Valley, he said he was too aggressive early on this year, striking out 44 times (with just eight walks) in his first 46 games with Charlotte.
Charlotte manager Brady Williams says Shaffer is developing as the Rays want, because he's progressing, not regressing.
"Early in the year, it looked to me like he was pressing a little bit, trying to show everybody who he is and all that kind of stuff," said Williams, son of former major-league manager Jimy Williams. "And he finally started to understand to just go out there and play, and take what's given to him."
Shaffer said other than organizing his strike zone, the biggest adjustments have been mental, not letting the slumps shake his confidence and change what has made him successful.
"When you're on the baseball field, you have to almost have the swagger about you that you're that best player on the field, even if you're on the field with a bunch of Hall of Fame legends," Shaffer said. "It helps when you start getting some of the results so you don't have to try to be blindly optimistic."
Shaffer also doesn't want to be viewed as just a hitter, taking pride in his defense at third base, which he started playing his junior year at Clemson (after playing first base his first two seasons). His lateral movement, and reading balls off the bat, have improved, and Williams says he has played an outstanding third base the past month.
Shaffer doesn't know what the Rays' plans are for him going forward. If he is asked to move, he said, he'll do what's best for the organization, but it's not on his mind daily.
"I'd be lying to say I don't have a little chip on my shoulder, because a lot of people doubted my ability to play third coming in," Shaffer said. "So I think I'm proving a lot of people wrong, and not just be an average defender, or above average, but an exceptional Gold Glove standard type of player at third. That's what my goals are."
To be just like Ripken.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.