For Ripken, year of pain, year of grit

In toughest season, Oriole again shows his inner strength

September 23, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN COLUMNIST

He persevered through his most trying season. Turned back the clock when it appeared his time was up. Moved within nine hits of becoming only the seventh player to reach 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.

And now this.

Cal Ripken will undergo back surgery today. The Iron Man is done for the season.

His rehabilitation will take at least three months, according to team sources. That would take him into late December, giving him seemingly enough time to prepare for spring training.

Less than three weeks ago, he hit his 400th homer at Camden Yards. Less than two weeks ago, he had a four-hit game against Seattle.

And now this.

Ripken, 39, was on the verge of clearing yet another milestone, and completing one of the most fulfilling triumphs of his 19-year career. For those watching closely, his stirring march to 3,000 hits defined him just as vividly as his record streak of 2,632 consecutive games.

Ripken displayed the same qualities in both quests -- physical strength, mental toughness, indomitable spirit. When healthy this season, he was better than ever. But after going more than 16 years without missing a game, he was never healthy for more than 10 straight weeks.

It's incredible he played as well as he did.

Ripken will fall short of the 502 plate appearances necessary to qualify him among the league leaders, but his .340 batting average, .581 slugging percentage and ratio of one home run every 18.4 at-bats represent career bests.

That's right, Ripken was at his most powerful and productive in a season that will end with his having appeared in little more than half of the Orioles' games.

To think, he enjoyed his first six-hit game June 13 in Atlanta. He hit more homers than in four of his previous five seasons. He looked as comfortable at the plate as he did in his MVP campaigns of 1983 and '91.

After a monthlong absence, he came off the DL for the second time on Sept. 1, needing one homer for 400 and 32 hits in his final 31 games for 3,000. He delivered his milestone homer in his second game back, and his milestone hit was coming faster than anyone expected.

And yet, he was always one swing, one stride, one twist away from reinjury -- a harsh reality for a preparation freak who hates surprises. Ripken could stroll with baseball's immortals, but only by walking a tightrope he had never walked before.

Where this goes now is anyone's guess.

When Ripken will get to 3,000 -- if he will get to 3,000 -- no one knows.

As always, it is pointless to count him out, especially with Opening Day 2000 a little more than six months away. Club officials had been counting on him as their starting third baseman for next season. But, right now, everything is on hold.

Back at the start of spring training, Ripken's quests for 400 homers and 3,000 hits never figured to be this difficult. He needed 16 homers and 122 hits, and both numbers seemed well within his reach.

Only twice has he hit fewer than 16 homers in a full season. Never in a 162-game campaign has he collected fewer than 152 hits.

But Ripken confronted unexpected, jarring obstacles all season long.

His father, Cal Ripken Sr., died on March 25, 10 days before the start of the season. Opening Day proved a challenge not only emotionally for Ripken, but also physically. He was removed for a pinch hitter in the third inning due to lower-back stiffness. Less than two weeks later, he went on the DL for the first time in his career.

He was found to have stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column. But he returned on May 13, quickly found his groove and went 6-for-6 on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball." At that moment, all seemed right with his world.

Who knew he would be sidelined twice more?

Who knew surgery would be a last resort, then an urgent priority?

Ripken has always been the player the Orioles trusted most. But this season, he couldn't even trust himself, not even when he was rolling.

His September batting logs reflect his astonishing late-season pace. Four hits against Seattle on Sept. 10. Two more against Seattle on Sept. 11. Two against Oakland on Sept. 14. Three in Anaheim on Friday. Three more in Anaheim on Sunday.

What happened? The same thing that always happens with Ripken. He played. He endured. He conquered.

And now this.

If his average was merely .300, he still would be 22 hits short of 3,000. For Ripken to come this close was an achievement in itself. For him to produce one of his best seasons under such duress qualifies as one of the more remarkable accomplishments of his career.

Ripken's milestones always are cause for celebration. It happened at 2,131, at 2,632, at 400. It was all set to happen again at 3,000, and still could happen, sometime early next season.

The plateau faded from view just as it appeared on the horizon.

Suddenly, Cal Ripken has other mountains to climb.

Back log

Back problems that have troubled Cal Ripken in recent years:

Aug. 2, 1997: Considered leaving game against the A's in bottom of the first with lower back pain after fielding a swinging bunt. Stayed in the game as his back improved.

April 5, 1999: Pulled in the third inning on Opening Day, a day after suffering spasms during a workout. Missed the next two games.

April 18, 1999: After continued problems, went on the disabled list until May 13, missing 22 games.

Aug. 1, 1999: With the return of spasms, put on disabled list until Sept. 1, missing 27 games.

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