His wife and two children have left him alone. They've come to
Minneapolis, just in case the deed is finally done, just in case
Cal Ripken Jr. collects his 3,000th career hit on the carpet of
the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome this weekend, but they have
left the hotel suite early for two straight days. He has been
asleep as the door closed, locked in his routine.
"So where did we go for these two straight days?" his wife,
Kelly, asks their 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, on Saturday,
filling in the blanks of their schedule.
"Mall of America," Rachel replies.
"And what did we do? We didn't go to one store, did we?"
"We rode all the rides. Both days."
So while his wife and daughter and six-year-old son, Ryan, have
been flipped and tossed, shot down water flumes and whipped into
Tilt-a-Whirl dizziness, Cal, the Baltimore Orioles' third
baseman, has dealt with his own loss of equilibrium by trying to
maintain a routine. This 3,000-hit thing has been harder than he
thought it would be. He needed nine hits when the season began,
and Saturday night's game will be the 11th of the year, and
still he needs three.
"In this kind of situation the battle isn't so much with the
pitcher and whatever he throws," Ripken says. "It's with
yourself. Baseball is a game best played in a normal
environment. You can't get too high or too low. I've been
running too high, thinking about all of this."
His approach is to try to collect himself, to breathe deeply, to
let 20 years in the big leagues, all those appearances in
All-Star Games and postseason games, take control. Go with the
flow. On Friday night, swinging the bat well, he had gotten only
one hit in four at bats, the three outs lined shots hit straight
into Minnesota Twins gloves. That's baseball.
On Saturday night, well, this is baseball, too. There's a bloop
into rightfield in the fourth inning off righthander Sean
Bergman for hit number 2,998. There's a chop off Bergman the
next inning, pounded into the artificial turf, bouncing maybe 30
feet high so there's no play for Twins third baseman Corey
Koskie, for hit 2,999. There's a one-ball, no-strike count
against righthanded reliever Hector Carrasco in the seventh.
Carrasco tries to come inside on Ripken with a fastball but
leaves it in the middle of the plate. Ripken rides with the
pitch, his bat arriving even and steady. The ball heads in a
straight line to centerfield, no doubt, no argument, about what
Thirty-nine-year-old legs linked to a recently repaired back
take a future Hall of Famer to first base safely for his 3,000th
hit. He knows the way. He has traveled it as much as anyone.
"You think about Cal getting 3,000 hits, and you think about all
those games he played," Orioles ace righthander Mike Mussina
says. "Say he didn't play every day, the way he did, for 16
years. Say he took off only 10 games every year. Well, that's
160 games. That's an entire extra season. If he didn't play
every day, the way he did, he might not ever get the 3,000 hits."
Longevity, far and away, was Ripken's most important asset as he
became the 24th major leaguer to reach the benchmark number.
Unlike the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn and the Tampa Bay Devil
Rays' Wade Boggs (now retired), who joined the 3,000 club one
day apart last year, Ripken never has been a base-hit machine
challenging for the batting title every year. He has, instead,
been the constant, the worker on the production line who has
stayed later and worked longer to match the output of other
people who might have finished faster.
As it was on Sept. 2, 1999, when he became the 29th major
leaguer to collect 400 home runs, he reached the 3,000-hit mark
with the most at bats of anyone on the list. He's a .278
lifetime hitter (chart, page 56), having finished better than
.300 only five times in his 18 full seasons. He needed more than
12,000 plate appearances to collect his 3,000 hits. His enduring
record, his streak of playing in 2,632 consecutive games, a mark
that probably never will be broken, is the important number that
has brought all the other numbers along with it. "Every player
in this game has only a small window in time to do what he can,"
Ripken says. "That's the truth for all of us. What I've been
able to do is to expand that window a little bit, make it a
Is there anything wrong with that? Is there any less dignity for
the tortoise than the hare?
Keeping his place on the field and in the lineup has been
Ripken's greatest asset. Maintaining. Surviving. He has changed
his batting stance a billion times, adjusting to whatever new
approaches pitchers might offer (box, above). He has made the
plays in the field, from deep in the hole or the long throw from
third, whatever was necessary. He has pounded out enough hits,
blasted enough long balls, sucked up whatever pains he might
have had--twisted ankles or tender wrists or irritated nerves
sending jolts down his thighs--and just kept going.
"People don't know how hard it is to play this game," Ripken
says. "It's like when Michael Jordan came over to play baseball.
I heard guys in this clubhouse say, 'Yeah, Michael Jordan, he's
not so much. I could have guarded him in basketball.' Michael
Jordan! Nobody in the NBA could guard him! And you could? Why
hasn't the NBA snapped you up? People are unrealistic."
Two years ago Ripken brought some realism to some middle-aged
summer campers. He had seen the success of the fantasy camps, at
which the average Joe could pay a fat fee to play baseball in
the winter with former major league stars. Ripken liked the idea
but said the campers still couldn't appreciate the difficulty of
playing in the major leagues. Fielding a grounder hit by a
60-year-old Brooks Robinson was not the same as fielding a
grounder hit by a 30-year-old Brooks Robinson. Ripken decided to
offer a camp that involved current major leaguers.
"I wanted guys to see what it was like to hit against Randy
Johnson, something like that," he says. "Randy eventually didn't
come, but we had some major leaguers like [Detroit Tigers first
baseman] Tony Clark and [Detroit second baseman] Damion Easley.
The first day we had the major leaguers take batting practice. I
noticed that at the start, most of the campers were in the
outfield. As the major leaguers started to hit, though, I could
see the campers sort of come in toward the infield, to see what
it was like. Easley hit a ball, a liner, that sort of knuckled a
bit. A guy tried to field it and it hit him right in the middle
of the arm. I hit a ball that hit a guy right in the cup. It
took about five minutes, but as these balls started flying, I
saw all the campers sort of heading back to the outfield. There
was this great migration. They'd seen enough."
How hard is this game? Every grounder is a test. Every fastball
under the chin is a test. Every day is a test. That has been
Ripken's constant thought. Pass today and you get to take the
test again tomorrow. Nothing more than that. There's always
someone waiting, hoping that you fail, ready to take your place.
Limited to 86 games in 1999 by two stops on the disabled list,
his season cut short on Sept. 23 by surgery to decompress the
nerve root irritation in his back, Ripken approached the tests
this spring with a different curiosity. What could he do? What
couldn't he do? For the first time he had spent the off-season
in rehabilitation, limited to exercises, to walking, barred from
playing basketball in his home gym in Reisterstown, Md. He
arrived in Fort Lauderdale as early as he could for training
camp, just to begin the tests.
"Can I make the play on the bunt?" he says, remembering the
questions he had to answer last month in Florida. "Can I make
the play coming in for the bunt and the batter swings away, and
I have to react? Can I make the next play? People say, 'Oh, he
had an operation and now he's better.' They make it sound like
you had a part replaced in a car. Well, it's not like that.
Surgery might make you better to some degree, but it's never
going to make you the same as you were."
The tests have gone well. He would have liked to have hit better
than .143 during spring training, and he would have liked to
have collected the nine hits needed for 3,000 in the first six
games, at Baltimore's Camden Yards. Still, the long season is
what's important. Getting a hit is getting a hit, an
accomplishment anywhere it happens. He says he feels the stroke
returning. He is moving better than he did in the past two
years. "I think he looks great," says Mussina, Ripken's teammate
for 10 seasons. "For two years he looked so much older. Now he's
two years older, but he looks two years younger. He's moving the
way he used to move."
"I'll work on his schedule with him," new Orioles manager Mike
Hargrove says. "He's earned that right. We'll consult. We want
him in the lineup as much as we can have him."
This season, more than any other, will be a test. Will 3,000
hits be mentioned as a closing grace note to the most solid of
all baseball careers? Or will 3,000 hits be a bounce toward a
few more years of grand productivity? (After sitting out
Sunday's 5-0 Baltimore win over Minnesota, Ripken was batting
.231 with two homers and six RBIs.) Even last year, with his
back aching and in mourning over the March death of his father,
Ripken hit .340 and had 18 homers, stats that if prorated over a
full season would have given him the best numbers of his life.
Will precaution help long-range performance?
The circumstances are different from what they were on Aug. 16,
1981, when Ripken, as a 20-year-old rookie, bounced a ball into
the hole between short and third off Chicago White Sox
righthander Dennis Lamp and legged out a single when shortstop
Bill Almon couldn't make the throw. A 3,000-hit man is different
from a one-hit kid. "I think about when I was young," Ripken
says. "I'd walk by that training room every day. I didn't even
know what they were doing in there. I know now."
The celebration at first base is understated for an era when
open-net goals and converted free throws are greeted with
scoreboard explosions. Teammates jog from the dugout and bullpen
to offer congratulations. There are no hugs or kisses or secret
signs. The Metrodome crowd of 18,745 gives a nice ovation.
Ripken jogs to the stands and hands the ball to his wife. The
entire process is timed at two minutes, eight seconds. The game
"It's always been an objective of mine not to mess with the game
of baseball and the way it's supposed to be played," Ripken
says. "My idea is, Let me get back to the game. There's a need
to get the game going. That's what's most important."
He signs a bunch of autographs, maybe 100, maybe more, after
Baltimore's 6-4 win, trying to share his moment in a small way
with fans, the people who make all of this important. He holds a
press conference, his family with him, all four seated behind
the same long table. Ryan sticks two fingers behind Cal's head,
quietly trying to make his father look like a rabbit in
photographs. Ripken sticks two fingers behind Ryan's head. "Got
you back," he says.
Kelly watches it all and says she hopes her husband can enjoy
it. He has battled for so long, with all these tests that he
takes, that she hopes he can relax, can tell himself, It's O.K.
to enjoy this now. She thinks he can. She likes the way he has
answered questions this year, likes the distance he has started
to show, looking at his accomplishments. Then again, she's not
sure. "I'd just like him to see what he has done," she says, "to
see what everybody else sees."
Three thousand hits. There's a lot to see. The window is still
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS SPRY GUY Now recovered from last September's back surgery, the resilient Ripken is getting relaunched at third.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER
COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA THREE GRAND After the big hit, Ryan and Kelly glad-handed Cal, while Rachel (to Kelly's left) had another Minnesota memory.
Before 1974 all 11 members of the 3,000-hit club owned career
batting averages of .300 or better. Since then 13 players have
reached the milestone, and six of them ended their careers with
an average below .300. The newest member, Cal Ripken Jr.(left,
in 1984), has the lowest career average of anyone in the club.
PLAYER Hits At Bats AVG.
Cal Ripken Jr. 3,000 10,804 .278*
Dave Winfield 3,110 11,003 .283
Carl Yastrzemski 3,419 11,988 .285
Robin Yount 3,142 11,008 .285
Eddie Murray 3,255 11,336 .287
Lou Brock 3,023 10,332 .293
Al Kaline 3,007 10,116 .297
"I'd just like him to see what he has done," Kelly said after
hit number 3,000, "to see what everybody else sees."