Surgery on back ends Ripken's season early; Oriole leaves team 9 hits short of 3,000


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken will have back surgery this morning, ending his season and cutting short his pursuit of 3,000 hits this year.

Ripken abruptly left the team yesterday to visit a Cleveland orthopedic specialist after experiencing a recurrence of back spasms that have followed him throughout the season. After he was examined last night by Dr. Henry Bohlman at Case Western Reserve University Hospital, lower-back surgery was scheduled for 10 a.m. today, the Orioles announced.

Doctors expect Ripken to be in the hospital for three days.

The 39-year-old infielder previously had classified surgery as "a last resort" for this off-season and had hoped to avoid it until at least after the 2000 season.

Ripken ends the season with 2,991 career hits.

Orioles head trainer Richie Bancells and outfielder Brady Anderson were the only team members to speak with Ripken before he departed for Cleveland. Bancells declined to speak on Ripken's state of mind, but said: "The recurrence is similar to the others, so it warrants him seeing Dr. Bohlman."

Ripken suffers from stenosis, a condition in which a too narrow opening within a disk causes chronic irritation of a nerve. Surgery involves a procedure of several hours and rehabilitation of at least three months, according to team sources familiar with his condition.

"Hopefully, he can get it taken care of before there's any more damage. There's all kind of scary things that can happen with nerves being irritated. With damaged nerves, it takes a long time sometimes," manager Ray Miller said. "Hopefully, he didn't damage anything; maybe it's just agitated. It's not an easy way for a 240-pound, 6-foot-4 man to hit the ground. 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."

Ripken already had reserved an early October date in Cleveland for possible surgery. Though previously uncertain about undergoing an operation, Ripken needed to secure the earliest possible date to begin the extensive rehabilitation as quickly as possible.

"It's a medical thing. But if I was told there was a chance of him damaging anything, I wouldn't do it," Miller said. "He's got another year to play for sure. 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 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 upon 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, general manager Frank 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,' " said Bancells. "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 numerous 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. Upon his May return, 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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