Ripken's end is new beginning

Retired Oriole says he is `energized by other projects'

October 08, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Leaving the field Saturday night, Cal Ripken descended three dugout steps and four more leading to the clubhouse tunnel. From there, he walked into the initial fog that greets every retiring ballplayer, even those who leave on their own terms.

"I don't know how the realization of not playing anymore is going to hit me," Ripken said minutes after an emotional but brief speech. "I don't think my lifestyle overall will change. My off-season will still consist of playing basketball and doing things I normally do. I'm energized by other projects, and I've started to map out how I'm going to go about that.

"I'm sure I'll wait until spring training until I have my first breakdown."

Saturday night was too early for Ripken to predict whether he will be at Camden Yards next Opening Day, his first out of professional baseball since 1978. He merely hoped to sleep until late afternoon before holding a party at his Reisterstown home last night.

"I'm the type of person who would rather play than watch," said Ripken, who loathed spectating from the bench while on the disabled list in 1999 and 2000. "I tried to sit and watch. But I was way too close to the action not to go crazy. Every time I was right next to the field, I had the urge to go out there and play."

Ripken arrived at Camden Yards on Saturday afternoon alone with his emotions. He left early Sunday morning drained by ceremonies before and after the Orioles' final game as well as a realization that he had pulled off his uniform for the last time as a player.

Ripken maintained his difficult final month did nothing to color his exit. However, the competitor within couldn't help but urge foul balls into the seats during the final homestand. The penultimate at-bat of his career ended with a backward flip of his bat over his shoulder after popping out.

The ninth inning almost found him again. Ripken was swinging in the indoor batting cage in anticipation of a plate appearance that never came. All he needed was for his close friend, Brady Anderson, to reach base with two outs.

"Do you want to hit again?" Anderson asked him.

"Yeah," Ripken answered as if stating the obvious.

"OK, I'll make sure that happens," assured Anderson, not knowing that he had just assumed what Ripken later called "the most pressurized at-bat ever."

Batting seventh, Ripken was stranded on deck when Anderson struck out against Boston Red Sox reliever Ugueth Urbina. It was Ripken who consoled his friend, saying, "Let it go."

Ripken played in 3,001 games - 2,632 of them consecutively before averaging 99 games in his last three seasons. He finished with a .276 career average in 11,551 at-bats, fourth-most in history. He cracked 431 home runs - a major-league-record 345 as a shortstop - and 1,695 RBIs.

Against the backdrop of such massive numbers, Ripken's difficult September represented merely a flyspeck, though it may have served to confirm the timing of his exit. He finished in a 2-for-48 slump, the most profound of his career, after hitting his final home run Sept. 23 off New York Yankees right-hander Orlando Hernandez at Camden Yards. The skid dropped his average from .261 to .239 this season; however, it dropped him only from .276623 to .275647 for his career.

The Orioles had aptly entitled Saturday's set of press notes "7,363 Days Later ... " referring to the length of a major-league career that began with a pinch-running appearance Aug. 10, 1981, against the Kansas City Royals. Saturday's ceremony hit all the right notes in reflecting upon ex-teammates and milestones. Appearances by former President Bill Clinton and commissioner Bud Selig confirmed the import of the night, but a series of references to Ripken's father, Cal Sr., provided the night its power. The retirement of Ripken's No. 8 and the unexpected appearance in uniform of the 1981 lineup that surrounded him in his first major-league start were compelling enough. However, the unveiling of a charcoal portrait of Cal Sr. - a gift from majority owner Peter Angelos and his wife, Georgia - and a dugout plaque commemorating the most renowned teacher in franchise history visibly moved the son and his mother, Vi.

"That was the most powerful thing for me," said Ripken, who referred to the portrait as an "unbelievable" likeness. "It was staring at me the whole time.

"I was choked up. ... I just held it in."

Ripken acknowledged in the last week that his farewell tour exacted more of an emotional toll than the buildup to Sept. 6, 1995, the night he eclipsed Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game mark.

"It was a celebration of baseball [in '95], but yet baseball was going to continue. I was coming out the next year," Ripken said. "This was more a human exchange. It's like what you have meant individually for so long. I'm going to go away in a baseball sense. I'm not playing anymore. There's a certain end. I don't want to say it was a certain desperation ... [but] I felt that."

Ripken and Anderson spoke less frequently in the weeks leading up to Saturday night. Anderson appreciated the emotions welling inside Ripken. And as part of his effort to retain focus on playing, Ripken did not dwell on the matter within the clubhouse.

"Every day, it seems like I have a personal study on human behavior," Anderson said before Ripken's last game. "He's the same person."

Anderson spoke of "relief" for his friend in retirement. Ripken used the word himself. The Iron Man now plans to take an extended vacation with his family, snow ski for the first time and enjoy his freedom from the game's eight-month grind. Not to mention sleep when he wants.

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