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With grit and talent, Ripken rose above crowd

Sun Staff

Cal Ripken just wanted to play the game. He followed in the spike marks of his father and hoped to emulate boyhood idol Brooks Robinson, but ended up creating a legend all his own.

Ripken redefined the shortstop position, unhorsed one of the most revered players in baseball history and enjoyed a terrific 21-year Orioles career that is to end at the conclusion of the 2001 season.

He officially announced his impending retirement during an afternoon news conference yesterday at Camden Yards, though there were hints as early as spring training that he was not planning to return in 2002. Everyone knew something was up when he agreed to let a Major League Baseball camera crew shadow him this year, just in case it turned out to be his last as an active player.

There was little left to accomplish. Ripken got his 3,000th career hit early last season. He already owned the all-time record for home runs by a shortstop and had long since broken Lou Gehrig's supposedly unbreakable record of 2,130 consecutive games. There wasn't much left to do but play out the string and make reservations for Cooperstown, where he will be enshrined in baseball's Hall of Fame in 2007.

He likely would have gotten there on the strength of any of his greatest accomplishments. The 3,000 hits would have been enough. The home run record for shortstops. The way he changed the perception of that position and blazed a trail for the new generation of big shortstops that includes potential Hall of Famers Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

There also were two American League MVP trophies and a World Series championship in 1983, but it was The Streak that really set him apart from the other great players of his era and elevated him into the pantheon of baseball's truly legendary heroes. He not only chased down the Iron Horse, but he also obliterated the consecutive-games record - exceeding Gehrig's total by 502 games and doing so at a far more grueling position than the one played by the almost mythical New York Yankees first baseman.

And it was the Gehrig chase that - by all accounts - saved baseball from itself after a disastrous work stoppage cut short the 1994 season and canceled the World Series. The record-breaking game on Sept. 6, 1995, produced a national outpouring of respect and admiration for Ripken and allowed fans to refocus on the positive attributes of the tarnished national pastime.

"He deserves the credit for the beginning of the remarkable renaissance of baseball popularity," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday. "It was one of the great nights that I've been present to witness.

"I've been fortunate to be witness to a lot of magnificent events, but I remember standing in the press box and watching the love and affection that the fans felt for him. His run around the ballpark was thrilling. That moment will live forever - indelibly stamped on baseball history."

It wasn't just the record-breaking moment that helped resurrect the image of major-league baseball. It was Ripken's crusade to heal the game one disenchanted fan at a time. He spent countless hours signing autographs before and after games throughout the 1995 season, sometimes standing in uniform on a darkened field hours after the final out to make sure that no one left the ballpark unhappy.

"I forever will be personally grateful to him for what he did in 1995," Selig said. "It was a very difficult time."

The work stoppage had so alienated fans that attendance dropped precipitously in 1995, but Ripken's efforts on the field and interaction with fans clearly helped renew public confidence in the sport.

"It's incalculable the impact he had in resuscitating the game in the aftermath of one of the worst work stoppages in the history of baseball," said Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, who has represented Ripken throughout his playing career. "I was in the box with the commissioner and President Clinton that night, and both of them marveled at how Cal could rally people back to the sport.

"From a historical perspective, few players have dipped into the bag of baseball history to contribute as much to the sport. The timing was impeccable, and the manner in which he carried himself and reached out to the fans and let the moment unfold created one of baseball's greatest moments."

Ripken may be best remembered for The Streak and its impact on the public face of the sport, but he also has had a huge impact on the position he played for most of his career.

He arrived in professional baseball as a lanky third-base prospect, but the eyebrow-raising decision by manager Earl Weaver to move him to shortstop broke the mold at a position previously reserved for smaller, more agile athletes.

At 6 feet 4 and 220 pounds, he was the biggest man to play shortstop in the major leagues on a regular basis, and he played so well he became the archetype for a new generation of good-fielding, great-hitting shortstops.

"I think he did change the thinking of people in baseball who thought that a guy that size could not play shortstop," said Orioles great Frank Robinson, who managed Ripken from 1988 to '91. "He changed the perception for the guys that followed in that he had no problem playing that position.

"I know that [1960s-era shortstop] Ron Hansen played at 6-4, and there were a few other big guys over the years, but that was the exception. Cal has made it so now big guys can walk in at shortstop with no problem. They owe that to Cal."

They know it.

"He set the standard," Yankees shortstop Jeter told The Sun in a previously published interview. "Shortstops were short, defensive. Now, the position is offensive as well as defensive. He set the tone for the rest of us."

Jeter and Texas Rangers superstar Rodriguez - both listed at 6-3 - are the standard-bearers for a new generation of bigger, better-hitting shortstops. Rodriguez recently parlayed his status as the game's best all-around player into a record $252 million contract.

"He gave me the inspiration and hope that someone 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 could go out and play a base," Rodriguez said yesterday in Texas. "He was a pioneer in many ways. The most underrated thing about him was his defense. The year he went out and made three errors and led the league in defense, that was awesome. He'll be remembered more for his home runs, RBIs and games played, but his defense was something."

Ripken couldn't have pulled it off if he had been an average shortstop, but that wasn't a problem. He shook off questions about his range by leading the American League in assists five times in his first nine years in the major leagues.

In 1990, he set major-league records for consecutive errorless games (95), fewest errors in a season (three) and highest fielding percentage by a shortstop (.996), but still did not make enough believers to win his first Gold Glove.

It would take a great offensive performance to shed sufficient light on his defensive accomplishments. He won his first of two Gold Gloves along with his second American League MVP honor in 1991 after hitting .323 and setting career highs with 34 home runs and 114 RBIs.

If that seems ironic, maybe it's not. Ripken never has been thought of as the best hitter of his generation, and he never was considered the best pure defensive shortstop. He was just the best combination of both at a time when a big, good-fielding, power-hitting shortstop was considered something quite revolutionary.

Ripken's individual accomplishments likely will carry him to near-unanimous election when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame after five years, but he said yesterday that his favorite career moment was the team effort it took to defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1983 World Series.

"Yes, winning the World Series, without question," he said. "I often remember catching the last out of the World Series. We just got back from Philadelphia [Sunday night] and, being there, you absolutely relive that moment."

The one aspect of Ripken's career that doesn't show up in the record books might be the reason that he achieved such greatness. His work ethic - developed at the knee of a father who was a stickler for the Oriole Way - has made him a role model not just for young fans, but also for fellow players.

"I told him, I've been around a lot of players - a lot of Hall of Fame players - but he is without a doubt the most prepared baseball player I have ever seen," said Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "His pre-game preparation is beyond anything I've ever seen."

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