Retirement news marks an end - to his quiet bat

September 30, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | By Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

It wasn't until Cal Ripken lifted a weight off himself that he could begin lifting his batting average.

Ending months of speculation, Ripken confirmed on June 19 that he was retiring after the 2001 season. The Orioles' youth movement could proceed without him. The countdown to his Hall of Fame induction could begin.

So could the outpouring of affection.

The summer has evolved into one continuous tribute, with ceremonies and standing ovations greeting him at every city, sometimes at every at-bat. The last group hug will take place at Camden Yards during a rescheduled Oct. 6 game against the Boston Red Sox. It won't be easy letting go.

"When I made the decision, I felt there was a little weight off my shoulders," he said. "It helped me focus better and relax. But as the calendar turned to September, I became aware of the finality of the last month. All of the sudden, I saw it in terms of the end.

"As we've gone on, some of the tribute videos have shown images that have got me worked up a little bit."

But not enough to distract him at the plate. Ripken has homered in six of 11 farewell cities. His 431 career homers rank 31st all time.

The season will end with Ripken ranked seventh on baseball's list for games played. Nobody strung together more in a row - 2,632. Few have exhibited his flair for the dramatic.

Ripken displayed it again at the All-Star Game, hitting a home run off Los Angeles right-hander Chan Ho Park and earning Most Valuable Player honors. He simply was continuing an offensive surge that began when his retirement plans became public.

Going into yesterday's game in New York, Ripken was batting .295 (75-for-254) with 10 homers and 43 RBIs since the announcement. Maybe it's the reduced pressure, the removal of all uncertainty. Or perhaps it's more physical, as hitting coach Terry Crowley so firmly believes.

Ripken got a late start in spring training after fracturing a rib while playing basketball during the winter. He batted .120 (3-for-25) in eight exhibition games, the layoff evident with each swing. A player who never met a stance he wouldn't try needed time to get comfortable at the plate.

By next week, he'll begin the task of getting comfortable with the next phase of his life - one that no longer will require him to wear a major-league uniform.

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