His last years were a pain

Injuries: A remarkably healthy run ended after Ripken's back began to cause him discomfort in 1997.

The Ripken Legacy : Health

October 10, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

When it started, Cal Ripken doesn't exactly remember.

Where it took him, he'll never forget.

While Ripken's legacy has been built upon an unshakeable foundation of durability, his memories of the final quarter of his career will include physical reminders of seasons crammed with severe pain, frequent numbness, surgery and repeated rehabilitation.

A herniated disc in Ripken's lower back and the subsequent nerve irritation caused by a condition known as stenosis caused the Iron Man to consider ending his consecutive-games streak more than a year before eventually doing so on Sept. 20, 1998, and to ponder retirement before he reached his 3,000th hit in April 2000. An atrophied left leg and a 6-inch incision are his battle scars. His grudging admission of the past five seasons' difficulty underscores how torturous the grind.

"It makes me appreciate how healthy I was the first 13 years of my career. I always feel there was a lot of luck that plays into it. There's desire. There's determination. There's the ability to play with pain. There's the fact you can establish yourself as an everyday player in the lineup," said Ripken, who underwent back surgery to alleviate stenosis - compression of a nerve root - on Sept. 23, 1999. "After I sustained my herniation, the series of back problems and ultimately surgery, it's been a struggle. It's taken some of the joy out of playing, because it makes it more difficult to compete without your full set of tools."

Ripken's final three seasons included three trips to the disabled list and one to Cleveland orthopedic surgeon Dr. Henry Bohlman's operating table. Surgery came three weeks after his 400th home run and less than seven months before his 3,000th hit.

"In the grander picture, I understand when certain players ended up in the training room how frustrating that can be ... how you feel you're not a part of the team and can't play. I've experienced a lot of that," said Ripken, limited to 86 games in 1999 and 83 in 2000.

"It's been tough to thoroughly enjoy what you do when there are aches and pains involved and you're limited. Most of my career, I felt there was no limit to the amount of practice I could do."

Ripken underwent surgery more than two years after he first began experiencing the effects of a herniated disc during a July 1997 West Coast trip to Oakland and Anaheim. Searing pain coursed through his back and left leg, causing numbness in his extremities that made it difficult to sleep or pull himself from bed. Several times, Ripken confided to center fielder Brady Anderson his doubts about playing on a given night. Anderson, who knows Ripken as a friend, a teammate and an example, persuaded Ripken to play on.

Ripken's meticulous, self-styled pre-game routine began to exclude hitting and fielding, replaced with heat treatments and lengthy sessions on trainers' tables.

Some days, teammates wondered if The Streak was about to end, as Ripken wouldn't be seen for hours while receiving attention for his back.

"There were a couple times you weren't sure he was going to play. Everybody knew he was feeling a lot of pain. But right before the game, Junior would come running out of the tunnel straight onto the field," former Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles recalled.

Pain made it excruciating for Ripken to sit during games. When the Orioles were at bat, he would either stand in the dugout or retreat to a tunnel, where he would stretch his back by leaning over a chair or dangling from a bar.

Ripken minimized the condition when it was initially disclosed during the final eight weeks of the Orioles' wire-to-wire American League East title run in 1997. The day after it was first reported in The Sun that he had experienced significant and lasting back pain for much of the previous two months, the club arranged a broadcast forum. Ripken moved down an on-field line of local broadcast outlets to reassure viewers and listeners that, yes, he had suffered pain earlier in the season but that it no longer threatened his performance.

As if to cement his point, Ripken batted .438 in the Orioles' Division Series beating of the Seattle Mariners and .348 with three RBIs during a six-game loss to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series.

Treatment of his condition necessitated that Ripken put himself through a rigorous series of trunk stablization exercises.

Ripken enjoyed a relatively pain-free 1998, but experienced one of his least productive seasons. His .389 slugging percentage was the second-lowest of his career to that point, though the wrenching pain that threatened the streak in 1997 remained mostly dormant. When Ripken notified manager Ray Miller less than an hour beforehand that he would sit out the season's final home game - ending The Streak at 2,632 games - his reasons had more to do with the fatigue of responding to questions about his continuing to play every day than with his back.

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