Ripken has chance to leave on top

June 16, 1999|By John Eisenberg

If Cal Ripken's life were being made into a movie, his performance in Atlanta on Sunday night would make a perfect ending. The aging Iron Man overcomes a back injury and his father's death to prove himself one last time, collecting six hits in a game. Cut. That's a wrap.

Come to think of it, Ripken's entire season to this point would make a perfect ending. From sadness, pain and persistent doubts on Opening Day to a .336 average and nightly standing ovations by mid-June. Two more hits Monday night, another home run last night, another All-Star start next month, whew.

You couldn't dream up a better final act to Ripken's Hall of Fame career.

If he'd already announced a retirement effective after this season, he'd be having quite a farewell tour, wouldn't he?

Of course, we raise the point just to, you know, raise the point.

We don't raise it to suggest he should retire. No, sir. That's his call to make, his alone. And it's a no-brainer if he doesn't reach 3,000 hits and 400 homers before the end of this season, regardless of what he ends up hitting. Those milestones are musts on his checklist.

Anyway, it's obvious now that he's going to keep playing for the Orioles, who all but have to pick up his contract option for 2000 as long as he doesn't totally fall apart. They can't throw money at Albert Belle and every other free agent and then go and play hardball with Ripken. Talk about a public relations disaster.

Besides, as long as Ryan Minor is hitting .242 at Rochester, there's still no alternative at third base that doesn't involve a complicated scenario including a trade and several other players switching positions. Hardly ideal.

Still, it's hard to envision Ripken, who will turn 39 in August, producing a more positive platform from which to say goodbye and walk away. As the saying goes, it doesn't get any better than this.

And that's too bad, in a way.

Just last month, when Ripken's back and batting average were hurting so badly, he had the look of that saddest of creatures, the star who'd stayed too long. In a year in which Michael Jordan, John Elway and Wayne Gretzky all went out the right way, Ripken was working on the wrong way. A sight no one wanted to see.

Now, suddenly, there's the chance for him to do it the right way, too, as Jordan and the others did -- leaving to a crescendo of cheers, after an inspiring comeback season pitched straight out of Hollywood.

He's not going to keep up this pace, of course, having hit .373 with 24 RBIs in 28 games since returning from the disabled list in May. That's 97 points above his career average and 50 points above what he hit as the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1991. Be realistic. A .300 season would be a triumph.

Compare that as a final career chapter to the likely alternative of watching him slowly begin to decline again as he approaches and passes 40, and, well, there's really no comparison. This is the way to go. The way a star of his stature should go.

Oh, well. What can you do? This is real life, not the movies. And Ripken didn't play in 2,632 straight games without being stubborn and ultra-competitive. He loves to play, he wants to play and, like Jordan, he has made a career of proving others wrong. His ears perks up whenever anyone suggests it's time to go.

He also surely would disagree that his comeback was the perfect ending. It's swell stuff, sure, particularly given where he was in April. But his idea of a perfect ending -- any player's idea, for that matter -- is a trip to the World Series. That's a long-odds proposition for the Orioles, to say the least. But try telling Ripken.

In the end, he'll just do what he's always done: play on and on and on and on, through good and bad times, until it becomes clear that he shouldn't.

He's always had a knack for doing the right thing, as he did last September when he found a way to end his streak the right way, at home, on his own terms, rather than letting the club end it for him.

He always gets the last laugh, always wins in the end. If you don't know that by now, you haven't been paying attention.

Numerous times during the streak, when his bat was suffering and it seemed he had to take a day off, he went out and proved that he didn't. Then, just when it seemed he was running out of time to find a graceful way to end the streak, he did.

Now, with his bat blazing and his glove sharp, he has the chance to end his career on a high note that no one envisioned as recently as a month ago.

It's not going to happen, clearly. The Hollywood ending that has presented itself will come and go. Ripken will keep on playing and settle for finding another way to end his career on a high, when the time is right.

And you know what? He probably will.

Pub Date: 6/16/99

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