'I still have the spirit'

Orioles: Cal Ripken fends off retirement talk, instead focusing on the chance to go out and play another season of the game he loves.

Baseball 2000

April 02, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Another season greets the his team -- and it still must be considered his team -- and another Question stands ready for Cal Ripken. If it's not The Streak, it's The Back. If not The Back, then it's all about The End. When do you sit? Can you sit? When do you walk away? Finally free from more than two seasons of searing pain, physical and emotional, the Iron Man is heavy-stepping toward 40 and answering questions that by now seem much older.

His view is simple, if it were only heard.

"The big picture is I love doing what I do. I love being a baseball player. I want to be a baseball player as long as I can,"

Barely six months ago, Ripken lay hunched over a surgeon's table in Cleveland, unsure whether the scalpel would tell him "enough." His 20th major-league season finally starts tomorrow, a refuge where he might be allowed simply to play. Finally, actions get to speak.

"It seems like ever since '95, there's been a question following him," pitcher Mike Mussina, who remains along with left fielder B.J. Surhoff, designated hitter Harold Baines, center fielder Brady Anderson and pitcher Scott Erickson from the bunch that pushed Ripken from the Camden Yards dugout Sept. 6, 1995, to take his magical lap after breaking Lou Gehrig's unbreakable record of 2,130 consecutive games played. "There always seemed to be a question about his motivation for playing every day, then afterward the question about how long he would keep doing it, then the questions about his back. But I guess since Cal sat down, the questions haven't seemed quite as loaded."

Years of media crush have given Ripken a sixth sense about wise-guy angles and leading questions. Unfailingly cooperative this spring, he has drawn the line at those things suggesting retirement. He downplayed the issue in February with a news conference. During a more recent photo shoot, Ripken was willing to pose at length with one provision: No shots allowed from the rear. Ripken assumes (in many instances correctly) that the angle represents a visual metaphor for a player's career passing. Unwilling to make such a concession verbally, he resents the lens whispering its 1,000 words.

At times, Ripken has joked about "the r-word" and glanced at a wristwatch during interviews to see how long before "the retirement question" arises. But he always answers.

"I can't project how things are going to be at the end of this year or in the middle of the year," Ripken says. "I'm just going to go out and play. I'm OK with that. I've had a great career. I still have the spirit inside of me to go outside and compete.

"It's a very comforting, very positive thing. There are no worries about it."

Calm amid uncertain future

Ripken has no comment about the organization's lack of motivation to discuss his career beyond this season. He has experienced much worse recently, watching cancer steal his father and idol, then last summer having to guess whether the next time he stood might cause his back to lock up or his left leg to go numb.

About five months shy of his 40th birthday, six months removed from lower-back surgery and nine hits short of 3,000, Ripken seemed to savor this spring more than others and certainly more than last year.

Only a day after being scratched from the lineup with a strained left trapezius muscle, Ripken drove himself two hours north to forsaken Viera, played perhaps his most impressive game of spring in a windy night exhibition against the Florida Marlins, spoke at length with the media afterward, then remained behind to sign autographs along the third-base line. The clubhouse emptied, the team bus pulled out and stories were filed with Ripken still signing in uniform.

Ripken lost his life's most powerful influence last March, yet discovered "a peace" he says allows him to embrace what's left of his career rather than flail at its end. He has played 2,790 major-league games; only 15 men have played more. Given last month's retirement of Tim Raines, only seven active players remain from the day Ripken began his consecutive-games streak in May 1982 -- Baines, Gary Gaetti, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Doug Jones, Jesse Orosco and Tony Phillips. Life after baseball is no longer a repulsive thought.

However long his career lasts, Ripken can now see beyond it. He has entered a partnership with Maryland Baseball chairman Peter Kirk and gained government funds to help construct a unique baseball complex in Aberdeen by next April. Ripken has committed $9 million of his money as well. A 6,000-seat minor-league park would be home to the independent Aberdeen Arsenal, with Ripken's younger brother, Bill, serving as its director of baseball operations. Six smaller surrounding fields, including an Inspiration Park, will be constructed as replicas of great parks to hold youth play and camps, and to serve as site for the Babe Ruth Baseball's Cal Ripken League (11-12) World Series.

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