At last, milestone is hit

Ripken ends chase on 3-hit night with single in 7th inning

His feat is 23rd in history 6-4 win over Twins makes O's day perfect

April 16, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- The moment arrived last night shortly after 8 local time. Cal Ripken, put on hold for much of a year by age, a back that threatened his career and personal challenges that strengthened his core, unleashed a seventh-inning swing that confirmed what his will made inevitable.

On the second pitch of the fourth at-bat of his 2,800th major-league game, Ripken lined a single into center field, earning a moment that had teased him for almost a year. He became just the 23rd player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits and only the seventh to also have 400 homers.

His hair is a little thinner, his gait noticeably heavier. But in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career, Ripken reached the milestone with characteristic force, singling three times for his first multi-hit game of the season.

The game ended 6-4, the Orioles' way, ending their four-game losing streak. For the first time in a week, the bullpen didn't buckle.

Ripken stepped into the box at 8: 05 p.m. to be greeted by Hector Carrasco, a pitcher whose career may have received its definition with what he surrendered. Ripken watched the first pitch sail high and over the head of catcher Matt LeCroy, allowing Albert Belle to score a go-ahead run from third base.

A minute later, Ripken re-entered the box, the Metrodome crowd breaking into a cheer, then falling silent, so silent that the crack of Ripken's bat rang out as his slicing line drive cleared the infield.

"It seemed like it was in slow motion," Ripken said. "I knew it was going to be a hit."

For a moment, he stood at first base, bathed in applause while greeted by base coach Eddie Murray -- his friend, former teammate and, now, a fellow member of the elite club.

"It was special and the first face I see is Eddie's friendly face," Ripken said. "It was really a nice moment. To shake hands and say a few words. It was nice, very nice."

Then the Orioles' dugout and bullpen emptied, engulfing Ripken with handshakes, hugs and well-intended jabs to the chest. His closest friend on the team, Brady Anderson, approached and wrapped an arm over his right shoulder. Ripken smiled the smile of a proud man, but also of a relieved man.

Ripken spoke of his "horrible" spring training in which he never homered and rarely felt comfortable with a squatty stance that compensated for residual back stiffness.

"Even when I started the season, I didn't feel what I wanted to feel swinging the bat," he said. "The pressure of me getting hits weighed on me a little bit."

Each team member left with his own impression yesterday. Manager Mike Hargrove treated it as a moment within an undecided game, then withdrew.

"That's Cal's moment," he said. "I don't know if there is anything you can say. I'm sure he had a lot of things going through his head at that time. You say congratulations, give him a hard squeeze of the hand and save all the pleasantries for later."

Before Ripken left the bench, Anderson looked everywhere except at his friend. "I looked to see what time it was," Anderson said. "I wanted to remember who was pitching and what the score was. Just in case somebody asked."

Ripken became only the seventh player in history to reach both 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. Murray was the last to join that club, also.

Ripken's 3,000-hit ball was retrieved, rolled into the dugout, then brought by Will Clark to its owner at first base. At 8: 07, Ripken walked toward the visitors' dugout, reached up into the stands and found a blonde woman in peach and handed the keepsake to his wife, Kelly.

"Would you hold this for me, please?" he asked, and reached for her free hand.

His teammates retreated, leaving Ripken to wave his helmet at a crowd that refused to sit. At 8: 08, Jeff Conine tried to follow the act. Impossible.

"Pretty neat," said Conine, a witness to George Brett's 3,000th hit with the Kansas City Royals in 1992.

Ripken had jammed a Sean Bergman waist-high fastball to right field for No. 2,998 in the fourth inning, then returned the next inning to chop a one-hop grounder to third baseman Corey Koskie.

Koskie did not make a play on Ripken, instead watching as the Iron Man sprinted across the bag with his first multi-hit game of the season.

"I blooped one in," Ripken said. "I fought off a tough pitch. Then, I hit one six stories high. Even I could beat that out. That took a little pressure off. That was the kind of hit to get you out of a slump."

Both balls were retrieved and rolled into the Orioles' dugout. After the fourth-inning hit, Ripken stood at first base and shared a laugh with Murray.

The dirty work was over. Ripken had slogged through 11 games, enduring occasional tightness in his surgically repaired back and frequent frustration with a swing that varies between 78 and 33 rpm.

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