Hrbek nears the end of Twins road

SIDELIGHT

August 04, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- A leading American League Rookie of the Year candidate in 1982, he has played for the local team he rooted for all of his life and has played for no one else.

He helped his team become a World Series winner and is linked to Lou Gehrig.

And his name is not Cal Ripken.

Kent Hrbek finished second to Ripken in the AL Rookie of the Year voting 12 years ago. Ripken will make his 2,003rd consecutive start tonight, hours after Hrbek officially announces his retirement, to go into effect after this season.

"That kind of news always saddens me," Ripken said. "At the same time, you know it's going to happen someday. Kent and I came into the game at the same time. We were both a lot thinner, a lot younger then. We've filled out a lot since then. We've played through a lot and seen a lot."

While Ripken experienced slumps and weathered criticism that he was playing too often, the opposite was being said about Hrbek.

Many contend his personal habits -- he smokes, doesn't hide his penchant for beer drinking and has a gut -- have played a role in injuries that caused him to average only 126 games in the previous five seasons.

To such criticism, Hrbek's response has always been the same: he is who he is and his fun-loving way of going about life has contributed to his being relaxed enough at the plate to hit 291 career home runs.

"I'm not going to talk about the 'R' word right now," Hrbek said. "I'll talk about it at the press conference. I hope they have food at it."

Hrbek never has tried to suppress his sense of humor. For example, with each prolonged no-smoking announcement from flamboyant public address announcer Bob Casey at the Metrodome, Hrbek pantomimes smoking a cigarette and shakes his head from side to side. Then he pantomimes drinking a beer and nods his head up and down.

Hrbek, hitting .262 with eight home runs and 43 RBIs in a part-time role, made the All-Star Game in his rookie season and Ripken didn't. Ripken has played in the game every year since and Hrbek hasn't made it back.

Along the way, Ripken gained much respect for Hrbek.

"Herbie's a big guy known for hitting home runs into the upper tank," Ripken said. "But he's a very agile guy who's always been good around first base. The Metrodome came in in 1982 so when you think of the Metrodome he's one of the first guys you think of."

Hrbek's link to the man whose record Ripken is closing in on was a tragic link. Early in his career, Hrbek's father died of Lou Gehrig's disease. Hrbek holds an annual golf tournament to raise funds for research to fight the disease.

Hrbek, always popular with teammates, has been particularly tough on the Orioles. He has hit 35 home runs (the most of any active player) and driven in 104 runs in 514 at-bats against the Orioles.

"There are not too many people you respect more in this league than him," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "I didn't bring a reliever in [for Arthur Rhodes] two nights ago just because I knew he was sitting over there. If knowing he's over there keeps you from bringing in the all-time saves leader [Lee Smith] that should tell you all you need to know."

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