Feeling a pull rather than a push, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken officially announced yesterday his retirement after the season, thus ending a relationship and a lineage with the only organization he has ever known.
Ripken and his wife, Kelly, walked into a sixth-floor party room in the B&O warehouse about 36 minutes late for a 3 p.m. news conference and quickly ended years of speculation about the end of the Iron Man's Hall of Fame career. Saying that the decision had been "tormenting" him, Ripken expressed relief at designating an end to the most productive career in team history.
Describing it as "totally a personal decision," Ripken spoke vaguely of his future but confidently of where his past has brought him. He made clear that he is completely comfortable with his decision.
"I didn't feel any pressure up to this point or any other point to make a decision. It's totally a personal decision. It came from within me. And I paid attention to the signs that were pulling at me," said Ripken, who appeared in slacks and a sport shirt and sat next to his wife. "I made a commitment to the Orioles to play the season. That's important to me. I'd like to fulfill that to the organization and continue to play and help the club in any capacity. ... I'm just going to continue to try and work at this. There was no push. There was a pull that helped me make the decision."
The Orioles seemed surprised at the timing of Ripken's announcement. Manager Mike Hargrove and majority owner Peter G. Angelos learned of it early yesterday morning from local media. The club's vice chairman and chief operating officer, Joe Foss, expressed "total surprise" at the announcement, adding: "No one I know of had an inkling that this was going to happen. Peter didn't know. Even Mike Hargrove didn't know."
Angelos learned of Ripken's decision about midnight Monday. Foss said Angelos intended to attend yesterday's news conference, but canceled at the last moment. Foss instead read a five-paragraph statement from Angelos calling Ripken "a great athlete, a great sportsman and a great Marylander."
"Cal's remarkable record-setting statistics as a player are only part of his astonishing story. His work ethic, his constant striving for excellence and his many contributions back to his community have established him as a role model for players and fans alike," Angelos' statement said.
"The Orioles are proud that he has been an integral, essential part of our team for more than two decades. He will always be a special legacy for the Orioles and our fans.
"Cal Ripken has shown he loves the game of baseball, but I speak for many when I say that baseball loves him as well."
This season, Ripken has struggled offensively since enduring an abbreviated spring training. He is hitting .207, with four home runs and 25 RBIs. Hargrove has gradually reduced Ripken's playing time because of his lagging production and to provide playing time for developing Orioles.
Asked if better production might have complicated his decision, Ripken said: "I honestly can say no. Could I stick my chest out a little further and be happier and less frustrated from a baseball perspective? Absolutely. But ultimately it wouldn't change my feelings for the other projects and the challenges that are ahead of me outside my playing career. It wouldn't change my feeling the need to be closer to my family. To fully understand that is to understand the lifestyle I've led my whole life."
The Orioles had suggested their intent to move beyond Ripken earlier this season, when Syd Thrift, the vice president of baseball operations, said the club needed to find Ripken's successor. However, neither the club nor Ripken suggested that club sentiment had weighed in his announcement.
"I don't think there was any doubt that Cal was going to make this decision for himself," said Hargrove. "I don't think there was anything that we could do or wanted to do to force Cal to make this decision. ... People earn things, and Cal has certainly earned the right to say when he wants to go."
Teammate Jeff Conine said: "You look at it in two ways: It's very special to play with one of the greatest players of all time, and I'm looking forward to the time he still has on this team."
The Orioles now must intensify their search for a replacement. Thrift acknowledged that no candidate looms in the farm system.
"We knew one day, someday, we were going to have to have a third baseman we could depend on for a long time," Thrift said. "That's our goal. It's not that easy. I don't see that many Cal Ripkens available right now."
Born into a baseball family, Ripken experienced an itinerant childhood as a son of a minor-league manager. Cal Ripken Sr. later managed Cal Jr. and brother Bill in Baltimore, but the impressions of those early years spent in small towns or waiting for a father's return are indelible.
"I always planned that sometime I would have that window of opportunity my dad didn't have with our kids ... where I can be there with my family," Ripken said.
Ripken has long insisted that he would remain in Baltimore at the end of his career. Yesterday, he reiterated his attachment to an area where he grew to be revered not only as a hero, but a source of civic pride.
"I'm a hometown guy; my dad was with the Orioles. I can't tell you when the Orioles weren't really, really important to me, because I can't remember that far back. As far back as my memory allows me, the Orioles were it," Ripken said.
Speaking frequently in the past tense, the future Hall of Famer spoke of a decision that became increasingly clear as the season unfolded. He did not say whether he would play his last game at Camden Yards on Sept. 23 or at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 30. But given Ripken's appreciation for the game's history, it is hard to fathom his not stepping onto the field where Gehrig made his famous farewell speech in 1939.
"It's been a great run; it's been a great relationship," Ripken said. "Even without this being my hometown, it's still the best place to be, the best place to play, the best fans to play in front of, the best environment, period. I've made no bones about that. You might say that's easy because it's where you live, but it goes beyond that. It's a special place."
A natural hero for a franchise he never tested through free agency, Ripken was never considered a natural hitter, He compensated with strength, endless adjustments and a work ethic considered without equal among those who played alongside him.
A two-time American League Most Valuable Player, Ripken ranks 18th on the game's all-time hit list with 3,107 and tied for 18th with 1,652 RBIs. His 421 home runs make him one of only seven players to amass more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs.
Ripken's most significant number, of course, remains the 2,632 consecutive games he played to shatter Gehrig's once seemingly unbreakable record. Even at 40 and having endured a back condition that leaves him with residual numbness in his left leg, Ripken remains in sound physical shape, allowing him to appear yesterday without second thoughts.
"I didn't want to be in position at the end of my career and regret going about it a certain way," Ripken said. "When I look back over my career, I tried to maximize my playing opportunity and tried to love every moment I had on the field. So when I look back, I don't have those kind of regrets. I accomplished what my skills, my ability and my determination allowed me to, and I'm proud of the experience."
Ripken said he arrived at a decision weeks ago, consulting only with an inner circle of family, friends and paid advisers. His wife said that there was no surprise within the household, though the process was not without humor. Ripken said he recently asked his children, Rachel and Ryan, about the possibility of his retiring, which led to a poignant reply from his son.
"He said, 'What if the Orioles need you?' I was feeling good about that. Then he made me feel not so good when he said, 'What happens if [David] Segui gets hurt and they've got to move Conine to first and you've got to play third?' I said, 'I think they'll find somebody else,'" Ripken said.
Saying, "I don't think I'll ever divorce myself from the game of baseball," Ripken sounded uncertain about his next connection to the sport. But he made clear that a connection would remain. "I don't see this as an ending. l see it as a beginning of an opportunity and a chance."
The team now faces increased attention as it begins a "farewell tour" Ripken had hoped to avoid.
"I know the ramifications of me saying this will change things the rest of the year," Ripken said. "I have to figure out how to deal with that, but I think in an ideal situation I'd like to take it all in. I'd like to be able to enjoy it."
Ripken did not concede anything for the rest of the season. "The challenges are going to be there," he said. "It's like the challenges that were there every one of the 21 other years. I expect to get hot, I expect to be productive. I expect to play pretty well.
"Where those numbers end up I'm not sure, but I look forward to the baseball challenge that goes along with it. But I also look forward to the end of the season and the rest of my life."