All-Star stage befits Ripken if he opts to sit out for good

June 29, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Cal Ripken always looked forward to the All-Star Game as a "celebration of baseball." But now that he can't play in the game for the first time in 18 seasons, is it possible he will turn it into a celebration of Cal Ripken?

The "R" word - retirement - is again looming over the Iron Man, who yesterday went on the disabled list for the second time in three seasons because of nerve inflammation in his back.

And if Ripken wants to end his career on a national stage, the July 11 All-Star Game in Atlanta likely will be his final chance, for the Orioles won't be returning to the postseason anytime soon.

Ripken, 39, never has been one to seek attention. He shouldn't retire on anyone's timetable but his own. And given his cautious, analytical nature, he's likely to exhaust all of his options before making a decision.

Alas, that decision might be closer than anyone imagined.

What options are left?

Ripken underwent back surgery Sept. 23. He has abbreviated his pre-game routine, curtailed his playing schedule, left games early. And on May 15, he received an injection to relieve nerve irritation in his back, irritation that was causing a burning sensation down his left leg.

Dr. Henry Bohlman, Ripken's orthopedic surgeon in Cleveland, told him that it would take six weeks for the irritation to ease. Ripken referred to those six weeks as "almost a magic number," and pointed to June 26 as sort of a personal independence day.

That was Monday, the day the Orioles landed in Boston after a red-eye flight from Seattle.

Late Tuesday night, Ripken doubled over after running hard on a fielder's choice RBI grounder in the 10th inning of the Orioles' 6-3 victory over the Red Sox.

And yesterday, he flew to Cleveland to be examined by Bohlman, with Triple-A third baseman Ryan Minor replacing him on the Orioles' roster.

As always, it is dangerous to count out Ripken, who surpassed Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record by more than 500 games, then fought through his back problems to reach 400 home runs and 3,000 hits.

But how much more can he endure? How much pain? How much sacrifice?

The question isn't one of performance. Ripken was batting .266 before his injury-related, 2-for-31 slump dropped his average to .239. And he remains on pace to exceed his career averages with 28 homers and 94 RBIs.

It isn't his ability slowing him down; it's his body.

Maybe setbacks were inevitable after major back surgery. Maybe an extended rest will give Ripken a chance to finish the season healthy. Maybe he can continue to manage his playing time and prolong his career.

Or maybe, the end is near.

Ripken was unavailable to comment yesterday. His business manager, Ira Rainess, said he has not discussed a retirement date with the future Hall of Famer.

Asked if he would be surprised if Ripken retired before the end of the season, Rainess said, "Yes, I would be. But we haven't talked about it. I don't have any of the information from his meeting with Bohlman."

Ripken loves a challenge, and he loves to play the game. Still, no one would fault him if he said, "enough is enough." His back has been a recurring concern since August 1997, a span of almost three years.

He had a magnificent postseason in '97. He achieved career highs in batting average (.340) and slugging percentage (.584) last season. And he has produced some remarkably clutch hits in 2000 while counting down to his 40th birthday.

But the "fire" in his leg, as he describes it, won't go away.

How long is he willing to fight it?

Is it even worth fighting anymore?

Ripken chose the perfect time to end his consecutive-games streak, removing himself from the lineup before the Orioles' final home game of the 1998 season. The moment came as a surprise, but true to form, Ripken left nothing to chance. He ended the streak at home, and on his own terms.

Retirement is a different matter - not the closing of a chapter, but the end of the book.

At one time, it seemed that Ripken wouldn't retire until he was literally dragged off the field. His back condition has forced him to confront his baseball mortality. Where once he was dogmatic, now he is pragmatic, willing to accept the end.

In his most public moments - breaking Gehrig's record, ending The Streak, reaching the 400-homer and 3,000-hit milestones - Ripken has demonstrated uncommon grace, and an understanding of his unique place in the game.

Should he announce his retirement in Atlanta? Only Ripken can make that call.

But if this is it - if Bohlman is offering little hope, if taking the field is just too much a battle - then Ripken should not hesitate to say farewell with a nation of fans watching.

He revolutionized the game, proving a big man could play shortstop. He broke a record that was expected to stand forever. He helped revive the sport after the players' strike of 1994 and '95.

He deserves to go out on a national stage, followed by a Cal Ripken Day at Oriole Park and a victory lap around the American League.

He deserves a happy ending.

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