The final stretch Aging: Cal Ripken, at the age of 36, is still going strong, but as several former Orioles greats recall, the beginning of the end to a great career can sneak up on a player.

March 12, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Hitting a baseball always required adjustments, and as Brooks Robinson struggled through the 1976 season, he was sure he needed only to make the necessary corrections in his swing and stance and all would be well again.

Not until after that summer, when Robinson batted .211 with three homers in 71 games, did he understand the source of his prolonged slump. Robinson was, quite simply, getting older. He turned 39 that season.

Third baseman Cal Ripken will be 37 in August, and if he is to be measured against past Orioles stars, he is nearing the end of his career -- in peak physical condition, 220 pounds, minimal body fat. He hit .278 last year, with 26 homers and 102 RBIs, and extended his consecutive-games streak to 2,316. "I feel fine," he said, after arriving in camp last month.

Frank Robinson hit 30 homers in 1973, when he turned 38, and he retired three seasons later, still enjoying the games but worn down by the daily regimen. Doug DeCinces woke up in a hotel room in 1987, the year after he totaled 26 homers and 96 RBIs for the California Angels, and asked himself, What am I doing here? His desire to play the game was gone, and he retired after that season.

Sick of the nagging injuries and hating his job, Boog Powell was called into the office of his manager, Tom Lasorda, two weeks after his 36th birthday, in 1977. "Boog, this is the toughest thing I've ever had to do," said Lasorda, preparing to release the longtime slugger.

"Tommy," Powell said, "let me make it easy for you."

And with that, Powell quit. Happily. Time had gotten the best of him.

Time does not steal all skills immediately. Watching Robinson play third at the Orioles fantasy camp, Powell said, he is amazed at how deft his old teammate is with his glove, how he catches everything.

Defense was never a problem in the twilight of his career, Robinson said. Trying to hit, however, became a frustration.

"When I got to be 39 or 40 years old," said Brooks Robinson, "I could still hit the ball. It just didn't go as far.

"I stayed in pretty good shape. But I couldn't get the bat through the zone as quickly as I had before."

He didn't understand that, at first.

"I don't think you'd ever admit it to yourself," Robinson said. "You think that maybe you just need to change a few things. You start thinking about hitting and what you're doing wrong, and you make a few adjustments and you feel like you're swinging a lot better. But what it came down to is, I didn't have the strength. I just couldn't hit."

The Orioles told Robinson after the 1976 season that DeCinces would be their third baseman in 1977, and Robinson, still thinking he could play, worked with Cal Ripken Sr. on a few more adjustments. He contacted both expansion teams, the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners, but eventually returned to the Orioles.

L He had seven hits in 47 at-bats over 24 games, batting .149.

"If you look at the Baseball Encyclopedia," Robinson said, "look at a lot of guys who played a long time; they all stayed around too long. But the way I look at it, you play as long as you can. This is your business. This is what you like to do.

"Some people look at Willie Mays and remember the 1973 World Series, and say how embarrassing it was. When I think of Willie Mays, I think of maybe the greatest player ever."

Robinson retired late in the 1977 season, 40 years old. "I thought they'd have to pull the uniform off me," he said. "But I was

ready."

DeCinces disenchanted

DeCinces had one of his best seasons in 1986, five years after the Orioles traded him to make room for Ripken. But that year ended cruelly for the Angels, an aging team: One strike away VTC from beating the Boston Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, the Angels were eliminated. Management decided to break up the core of the club and rebuild.

"I got a little bit disenchanted after the 1986 season," he said. "[Owners'] collusion was in full swing, and there was a lot of negative stuff going on."

DeCinces was still performing at a high level in 1987, even with pain from his lower back trouble. "In my mind, I felt like I could always do things that I'd been able to do," DeCinces said. "But I started to notice a desire factor."

As in the lack of desire to prepare every day, take ground balls, concentrate in batting practice.

"I would always get up for the games," he recalled. "But I lost the mental desire to prepare. I didn't want to be on the road, to be away from my family. You have to prepare and make the sacrifices necessary to compete as a successful major-league player."

DeCinces, asking himself the questions you can't ask if you're going to compete, retired after the 1987 season. "You can never question, 'How much longer can I play?' I don't think Cal Ripken wonders, 'How much longer can I play?' "

Double duty for F. Robinson

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