Ripken back surgery ends his season early; Relapse stops 0's star 9 hits short of 3,000

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ARLINGTON, Texas -- No longer able to withstand the pain and numbness that have followed him much of this year, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken will undergo back surgery this morning, ending his season.

To alleviate the nerve condition that twice sent Ripken onto the disabled list this year, Dr. Henry Bohlman will perform what is expected to be a 2 1/2-hour procedure, beginning at 10 a.m. at Case Western Reserve University Hospital in Cleveland, the team announced. Orioles officials were told Ripken will be hospitalized for at least three days and unable to resume normal activities for about a month.

A seeming certainty as recently as Tuesday, Ripken's drive to 3,000 career hits slammed to a halt nine shy of the mark. Though general manager Frank Wren offered a "100 percent" assurance that Ripken, 39, will be rehabilitated before spring training, today's procedure is considered a delicate one that Ripken had hoped to avoid until at least after the 2000 season. He had consulted with numerous doctors and sampled many methods of rehabilitation.

"It's a realization that, without the surgery, this will continue to happen," Wren said. "I think he's encouraged at how well he played this year. This is inevitable if he wanted to continue to play at a high level.

"The timing surprises me. The fact that he's having it done does not."

Ripken suffers from stenosis, a condition in which a too narrow opening within a disk causes chronic irritation of a nerve. Today's surgical procedure is called a decompression, performed for the purpose of relieving the nerve-root inflammation.

Though Ripken had been noncommittal publicly about having surgery after this season, many within the clubhouse believed he would have had the procedure this year even without the latest relapse.

"He's not frightened of the surgery," said outfielder Brady Anderson, the only teammate to speak with Ripken before he headed to Cleveland yesterday to see Bohlman. "I think it was something he was going to have anyway at the end of the season. I'm sure it would have taken somebody with less tolerance down a long time ago."

"It's not an easy way for a 240-pound, 6-foot-4 man to hit the ground," manager Ray Miller said. "You don't slide casually or dive for a ball lightly.

"To his credit, he's laid out for some balls that a guy having problems maybe shouldn't have laid out for."

Anderson said he and Ripken had discussed the possibility of him having "pretty frequently" in recent weeks. "I think he knew he couldn't continue to play for two weeks and have it get irritated, then take four or five days off," Anderson said.

"Nobody wants to go under the knife, no matter what you do," pitcher Mike Timlin said. "You make every effort to rehab it and have it heal naturally. When it's a tough thing trying to get up or sit in a restaurant -- things you take for granted -- you have to deal with it."

"I think everybody around knew he was having a tough time," pitcher Mike Mussina said. "I've seen him go through a lot in nine years. It must have been unbearable to make him stop."

Ripken had reserved an early October date -- the season ends Oct. 3 -- in Cleveland for possible surgery. If he were to undergo an operation, Ripken needed to secure the earliest possible date to begin the extensive rehabilitation as quickly as possible.

"He's got another year to play for sure," Miller said. "The way he's playing this year, he might have another 1,000 hits in him."

Ripken's productive return from two extended stays on the disabled list has been one of the season's more remarkable stories. Needing 122 hits this season to reach 3,000 for his career, Ripken missed 22 games when placed on the disabled list for the first time in his 19-year career from April 18 to May 12. He emerged fresher and hit in 49 of his next 61 games, including a .413 average in July, but a relapse sidelined him Aug. 1. Ripken returned on Sept. 1 and had hit .365 in 17 games since. Ripken has a team-high .340 batting average, with 18 home runs, 57 RBIs and a .581 slugging percentage, also a team high.

Ripken initially described the second back flare-up as less severe than the first, but eventually endured a longer absence. Numbness in his legs has frequently accompanied the spasms.

Needing 32 hits in 31 games on his return, Ripken had compiled 23 hits in three weeks, including his 400th home run on Sept. 2 and a four-hit game Sept. 10.

As recently as last weekend, Miller, Wren and Ripken had addressed questions about the timing of his 3,000th hit, with all parties insisting that Ripken's appearances wouldn't be manipulated to ensure that the milestone occurred at Camden Yards.

Miller tried to preserve Ripken's health by removing him from recent games after a minimum of four at-bats. Ripken never approached his manager about a recurrence of pain, but Miller noticed Ripken sag during Saturday night's win over the Anaheim Angels.

"He hadn't said anything, but the second day in Anaheim, I could just look at him and tell he wasn't feeling good. He didn't say anything when I took him out," Miller said.

Ripken returned to hit three singles on Sunday. But given Monday's day off, he again appeared to labor through Tuesday's 4-2 win. In the second inning, he lined a ball that ticked off second baseman Mark McLemore's glove and ricocheted into foul territory. Ripken had to alter course as he rounded first base and then slid into second. Replays showed him wincing as he pressed for an extra base, then struggling to pick himself up.

"Every time this has occurred, there's never been a pinpoint incident where you can say, 'That's it,' " Orioles head trainer Richie Bancells said. "I think it's a useless chore to try to pinpoint one thing."

Bancells said Ripken gave no indication of a problem after the game, but began suffering spasms upon returning to his Dallas hotel. Ripken was unable to sleep and phoned Bancells at the team hotel yesterday morning to notify him of his intention to visit Bohlman.

Ripken has denied receiving conflicting advice from the orthopedists he has consulted in the past year, but sources familiar with the situation say Bohlman has made clear that surgery would become necessary at some point. On his return in May, Ripken had classified surgery as "inevitable," but remained hopeful of postponing it until after his career.

Ripken's bouts of nerve irritation had become more frequent. Each of the team's last two cross-country flights have presaged a recurrence.

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