News - Fading away

Cal Ripken shows us how it's done

The Man Who Saved Baseball after the strike of '94 scheduled his one and only Turner Field press conference for 3:30 p.m. last Thursday in the visitors' dugout, where the heat rolled in in radiating waves — and didn't budge. Cal Ripken Jr. could have commandeered any of several air-conditioned spare rooms tucked into the underbelly of the ballpark, but he didn't. This is what is known as a veteran move — sweating reporters ask fewer questions.

Four hours later, Ripken was still dictating the terms of his farewell tour. This time, to the Braves organization. Yes, the Braves could have staged the pre-game ceremony honoring him and plopped down bases painted with gigantic orange No. 8's with neither his permission nor his participation. But that would have been weak, to say the least. Instead, the Braves got autographed game-used bases for the Braves Foundation auction, with the stipulation that the proceeds will benefit the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, honoring the baseball player's late father.

After 20 years of accumulating 3,128 hits in 11,309 at-bats in nearly 3,000 games — and counting — and a host of other mind-numbing stats, Ripken has learned a trick or three. Principally, that surrendering to the publicity process makes things a whole lot easier. If he can make it work for him, so much the better.

Subjecting himself to a four month-long goodbye beats a daily drumbeat of hints, questions or tirades about how he should retire, which is what would be going on had the 40-year-old Ripken not announced a few weeks ago he would retire at season's end. Instead, he has co-opted the debate and made the inconvenient honors work for him.

Ripken is as low-key as it gets. He dresses in black silk T-shirts — elegant, but casual — double-pleated trousers, beautifully tailored sports coats. These hang neatly in his locker above his perfectly aligned polished shoes. What hair is left is gray, sheared to his scalp. Ordinarily I'd say that the stark coloring would accent a pair of blue eyes. But no color combination could obscure Ripken's riveting ice-blue eyes.

He became a baseball legend by reporting to work every day. That gets the attention not only of the paying public, for whom he spends at least 30 minutes before and after every game signing autographs, but also of his highly paid peers, who know better than anyone what such a feat requires. That's why the Braves were not the slightest bit offended when the sell-out crowd at Turner Field gave Ripken standing ovations and demanded curtain calls after he drove in three runs with two homers Saturday night.

The Braves, far from minding the cheers, thought them well deserved.

"Unbelievable," Ripken marveled. "Almost to the point where you feel like you're doing something wrong in the middle of the game, the home run. It's very strange to get a curtain at all at an away ballpark. I felt appreciative and I felt thankful for the support."

To Ripken, the best part about how he played here is not the adulation. It's that his production makes it harder for Orioles manager Mike Hargrove to replace him in the lineup. Ripken and Hargrove sit down before each series and together they determine how much he will play. He wants to play more, but he understands the situation. The Orioles need to see what their young guys can do.

Next year, he will break the hold a baseball schedule has had on his life since he was a kid, the son of a ball player. He has written a book for kids and coaches about the right way to play baseball. Now that the name of the largest division of Babe Ruth baseball has been changed from Bambino to Cal Ripken Baseball, Ripken plans to try out his theories on the kids.

His first rule is that baseball should be fun. So Ripken, the torment of the great retirement decision lifted from his shoulders, is going out on his own terms. He is turning every pain-in-the-butt obligation into a celebration of the game.

"I just want to be remembered," he says, "as someone who loved the game. Someone who came to the ballpark every day for the challenges. I never set out to break [Lou Gehrig's consecutive games] streak. All I did was go out and play."

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