Archive for Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Ripken earned right to stay in game

Future Hall-of-Famer’s skills not what they used to be, but it doesn’t matter

June 20, 2001


— Although a mandatory retirement age for professional athletes does not exist, a mandatory retirement time does. It falls when its subjects can't play anymore because of injury or drastically declining skills, or when some hotshot youngster comes along who is better.

At least that is the case for most pros.

For the few superstars headed to their halls of fame, like the Cowboys' Troy Aikman and basketball's Hakeem Olajuwon and hockey's Mark Messier, the mandatory retirement time is waived. They can play on no matter how poorly and without regard to who may be waiting in the wings. Stardom has allowed them to cash in their 401k's on their own terms, rather than on those of their friends, family, teammates, coaches, fans or, God forbid, the media.

This is sports' version of the lifetime achievement award.

So it was the last couple of days with Cal Ripken Jr., who finally said, in so many words, what most thought he should've said a couple of years ago: "I'm done."

After all, Ripken, two months shy of his 41st birthday, was hitting just .210, or 67 points below his career average, when he revealed his decision Monday.

After breaking Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" record of playing in 2,130 consecutive games six seasons ago, Ripken was lucky these days if he could play five games a week.

After undergoing back surgery a couple years ago, he lost the flexibility and lateral movement that helped make him such an outstanding shortstop, despite standing 6-4, 220 pounds.

The only similarity between the Ripken of today and the Ripken of most of the past 20 seasons is his Orioles' uniform and the No. 8 on his back. It is sad, of course, but also an inevitable development on the downhill side of a superstar athlete's career.

There is nothing the rest of us can do to stop it. There is no Rogaine or Viagra on the market to return our athletic heroes to their former selves. Our protests that they stop before we forget who they once were almost always fall on deaf ears. All we have to save them from themselves is our memories, of which we have a dugout full of Ripken.

There was1982, when he was named Rookie of the Year.

There was 1983, when as league MVP he led the Orioles to their last World Series and world championship.

There was 1990, when he committed just three errors in 161 games to set the record for fielding percentage by a shortstop, .996.

There was the absolutely spellbinding night in September 1995 that etched his image in American folklore and solidified his place in baseball's shrine. Before a national television audience that night, he broke Gehrig's record, while hitting a home run for punctuation.

A friend suggested upon hearing of Ripken's revelation, which wasn't so surprising given the one-year contract Ripken signed for this season, that Ripken was overrated. It was not the first time someone suggested as much.

He wasn't the best shortstop ever, despite his outstanding glove and record-setting bat for a shortstop. But there is no overestimating how good of a player the soon-to-be 19-time All-Star was for most of his career, or what he meant to his team and the game.

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