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The Cat who beat out Hall of Famer Cal Ripken: A Charlotte baseball story

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/12/15/05/15HUl0.Em.138.jpeg|316
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    Former Charlotte O's shortstop Cat Whitfield started at shortstop ahead of Cal Ripken, who played third base, in 1980.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/12/15/05/tlh5K.Em.138.jpeg|500
    Nancy Pierce - Charlotte Observer File Photo
    Cal Ripken, Charlotte O’s third baseman.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/12/15/05/14SiNF.Em.138.jpeg|436
    - Courtesy of Cat Whitfield
    Cat Whitfield was part of a series of baseball cards issued by WBTV in the early 1980s that commemorated the Charlotte Orioles, a Double-A farm club of the Baltimore Orioles at the time. Whitfield said he debated whether to wear his glasses for the picture, but that “since I wore them while I played, I figured I’d wear them for the picture.”

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Baseball in Charlotte is both old and new. Minor-league teams have played in and around the city for more than 100 years, and long before the "Charlotte Hornets" became an NBA basketball team they were a beloved minor-league squad.

A spectacular new ballpark opened Friday in Charlotte for the Charlotte Knights -- one that will stitch lives and dreams together in the same way that Crockett Park once did for generations of Charlotteans from the 1940s to the 1980s.

"A minor-league stadium is a community gathering point," said Cal Ripken, a baseball Hall of Famer who played all 144 games for the Charlotte Orioles in 1980 before he became known as "Iron Man" in the major leagues for playing 2,632 games in a row. "It brings the community together -- not just for the baseball, but for the interaction. I think it's very important, and I'm thrilled that baseball is back in the Charlotte city limits."

Funny thing about Ripken. Although he earned a major league all-star game berth 14 times as a shortstop, in Charlotte he was edged out for the starting shortstop position by a man named Cat Whitfield.

Ripken got switched to third base in Charlotte, where he flourished, blasting 25 home runs in 1980 and making it to the big leagues less than two years later.

Whitfield? He never got past Double-A ball, two rungs below the majors. Orioles officials kept asking him to repeat his Charlotte experience, over and over, a little like Kevin Costner's character had to in "Bull Durham." Finally, Whitfield just quit.

But Whitfield never left Charlotte after he retired from baseball at age 25. And, like so many hundreds of players and fans who are a part of Charlotte's baseball history, he turns out to have quite a story himself.

‘A very talented player’

Whitfield has had a number of brushes with celebrities. Growing up in Pennsylvania, he played for the same American Legion team as Joe Montana and has a great tale about the future hall of fame quarterback and the time Montana met Joe Namath's father. While staying in Charlotte, Whitfield met the wrestler "Andre the Giant" -- while Andre was talking to Whitfield's future wife by an apartment pool in Charlotte. And of course, there was Ripken.

Whitfield himself is very much a regular guy, one with a quick laugh and a gregarious nature.

"Cat was always outgoing," Ripken said. "He was a very talented player, and he kept the whole team loose."

Said Grady Little, the future Boston Red Sox manager who managed the Charlotte O's in 1983 and 1984 and employed Whitfield as a coach for one season: "The character that Cat Whitfield is, you always knew he'd be successful doing something. Great person, and one of the most likable guys around."

Whitfield got his "Cat" nickname from high school baseball teammates who thought he resembled the "Cat in the Hat" character. He runs his own construction and demolition debris removal company now, mostly hauling off pieces of old decks to recycling centers and landfills around the Charlotte area.

Loading a dump truck is hard work. And Whitfield, 57, frequently does it alone -- filling his truck one wheelbarrow's worth at a time. He calls his company "Trash Man Do."

"I've got to tell you, I love it," Whitfield said. "I've always loved self-employment. I was a painting contractor for 15 years. I would dig ditches to be self-employed."

Whitfield got to Charlotte in 1979 via a route as roundabout as an inside-the-park homer. From the Pittsburgh area, he was a high school standout. He wound up at tiny Alderson Broaddus College, as it was known at the time, in Philippi, West Va. The baseball team didn't even have bleachers or a scoreboard then, Whitfield said.

"It was so small," Whitfield said, "the coach's wife would stand up between innings and announce the score. I’m not kidding, either."

Miraculously, a scout saw Whitfield play and he ended up as the Orioles' 21st-round draft choice of the 1977 major league baseball amateur draft. He was a shortstop with a very good glove but without much power. Whitfield would hit only eight home runs in his minor-league career and had a career .233 batting average.

Whitfield had a good baseball IQ, though, and that along with his glove had him progress steadily from rookie ball to Single A to Double A in Charlotte. In 1979, he and Ripken both played for the O's -- Whitfield for the whole season and Ripken right at the end of it.

Whitfield vs. Ripken

In 1980, the Orioles went to spring training. Ripken was 19 and a hot prospect, a second-round draft choice who was the son of Baltimore Orioles' third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr.

Whitfield was 23 and determined to hang onto his shortstop position.

"It's hard to turn your mind back to that point," Whitfield said, "but Cal wasn't Cal yet back then. I had been there all through 1979, and I wanted the shortstop job."

At the time, Ripken said in a recent phone interview, Whitfield was the better fielder. Whitfield agreed.

"I may have been faster," Whitfield said. "I don't know about arm strength -- I can't say for sure -- but I'd like to say my arm was stronger. As for lateral movement, when he'd be playing short I would think, ‘I could have gotten to that ball.’"

Remembered Ripken: "I had been a shortstop, but I made 30-something errors in about 60 games in Bluefield [in rookie-league baseball in 1978]. Then I made a lot of errors in the first half of the year in Miami [in single-A ball in 1979]. Then we had an injury to our third baseman and I moved over then and played well. I think then they made the decision that I was better suited for third. So in 1980, when I came to Charlotte, I played some shortstop but they were developing me more as a third baseman, which was fine. Cat was a very talented player, and we enjoyed manning the left side of the infield together."

Ripken would switch back to shortstop shortly after he made the majors in mid-1981 and stay there with the Orioles for the majority of his career. But in 1980, he and Whitfield started together for the Southern League champions.

Whitfield knew that the handwriting was on the wall as far as Ripken making it big. Whitfield had arranged to take two days off in June 1980 to go to West Virginia so that he and Vicki, his girlfriend, could get married. Ripken would play shortstop in the games Whitfield missed.

Said Whitfield, laughing: "She was walking down the aisle, and I'm standing there with my entourage of guys, and I'm motioning to Vicki like, 'Walk faster, walk faster. Let's hurry this up!’ Because Cal is back home in Charlotte playing shortstop and he’s probably hitting two homers a game."

‘Hey Catman, welcome back!’

After Ripken moved on to Triple-A ball and then the Orioles, Whitfield remained stuck in Charlotte. Fans started to recognize him in opposing cities. A couple invited him to go fishing. "'Hey Catman, welcome back,' they'd say," Whitfield recalled. "And believe me, in the minor leagues, that's not a compliment."

Whitfield's wife had a good job working as an intensive-care nurse in Charlotte. In 1982, when the Orioles sent Whitfield to their Double-A team in Charlotte for a fourth straight season, Whitfield decided he had had enough. The Orioles' Triple A and major-league teams were loaded with infielders he knew were going to get a shot at the big leagues before he was. He asked to be traded or released from his contract. Getting a "no" on both those counts, he quit playing baseball at age 25.

"I had been playing well because I didn't care anymore," Whitfield said. "That's what the problem was. I wasn't doing the game justice. I kept thinking I don't want to do this anymore. All my old teammates seemed to be in the major leagues -- the team was all new guys. So I said, 'I've got to go.' And I've never regretted that decision."

Whitfield did return, however, to help coach the Orioles for a year in 1983 under Little, the team’s manager. Out of desperation, Little put Whitfield in one game at the very end of the season when a bunch of players had been called up to Triple-A. Whitfield went 2-for-4.

“The other players were like, ‘Hey, maybe we should have listened to Cat a little more,’” Whitfield joked. That turned out to be his last game of organized baseball.

Whitfield then had a series of blue-collar jobs -- the worst coming on the night he had to unload a truck full of child-sized coffins -- and made a permanent home in Charlotte. He and Vicki never had children. She worked as a nurse for 26 years before dying of cancer in 2008. Whitfield opened his "Trash Man Do" business not long after that.

He still cherishes the memories of his days as an athlete, including an unusual one about Joe Montana.

"This was in 1972 or '73," Whitfield said, warming to another tale. "We were all punks. We thought we were studs because we could play baseball. Joe Montana lived about 10 miles away and we were on the same American Legion team. We won a lot.

“One time Joe was pitching a game in Beaver Falls, Pa., and Joe Namath's father was there. Montana was lights out during the game and Mr. Namath called him over afterward. 'Son,' he said, 'you're a hell of a pitcher.' I was standing right there. And Joe said, 'Well, I'm a better quarterback. And one day they're not even going to remember your son's name because they'll remember mine.' And Mr. Namath said, 'Son, I hope that's true.'"

Is that story 100 percent true? Who knows? Whitfield laughed once during our interview and said as the years go by, his stories have gotten better because they are harder to double-check.

But it is definitely true that Whitfield once was judged a better shortstop than Cal Ripken by the higher-ups in the Orioles’ organization. He has photographic proof that he and Montana played together, too. Now Whitfield is a working man in Charlotte. And he's just fine with that.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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