Less than 24 hours after leaving the Orioles in Texas, Cal Ripken underwent successful back surgery yesterday at University Hospitals in Cleveland and was projected by general manager Frank Wren to return to third base in time for Opening Day next season.
The 90-minute procedure was performed by spinal surgeon Dr. Henry H. Bohlman of Case Western Reserve University Hospitals and witnessed by Dr. Michael Jacobs, the team's orthopedic physician.
Surgery completed a whirlwind two days that began when Ripken suffered constant spasms in his back after Tuesday's game against the Texas Rangers. Unable to sleep at his Dallas hotel, Ripken contacted team trainer Richie Bancells and said he was leaving to be seen by Bohlman. An examination Wednesday afternoon led to a recommendation that Ripken undergo the procedure, particularly because it was clear that he was not going to play for the rest of the season.
"I talked to him last night. He sounded resigned, like he accepted it," said Ripken's mother, Vi, who spoke with her son from Aberdeen on Wednesday night.
Ripken, nine hits shy of 3,000 for his career, had endured two stays on the disabled list this season with the same problem. In each case, he had missed at least 22 games, despite a series of cortisone injections for his back. With only 12 games remaining this season, there was no rationale for further postponement.
"I think the basic reason he went with the surgery now is that he wouldn't be able to play the rest of the season anyway," Vi Ripken said. "You have to wait for the pain to subside before you get back to business, so rather than sitting around grousing and waiting for the swelling to go down, he might as well get it done."
Ripken had set aside an early October date for possible surgery, according to a source familiar with the situation, and Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson confirmed that Ripken had been considering an operation even before this week's relapse.
"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," Anderson said Wednesday.
He and his friend had discussed the possibility of surgery "pretty frequently" recently, Anderson said.
"This was the last resort," said Wren. "We tried the other therapies to get him through, and they became more and more temporary. He didn't get the long-lasting effects we had hoped. This was one of those unspoken last resorts."
Ripken will be hospitalized through at least Saturday, team officials confirmed.
"Kelly [Ripken's wife] went up there to be with him," said Vi Ripken. "He's supposed to be out in 48 hours, so there really is no point in anybody else running up there. If everything goes the way it's supposed to, that's their timetable."
Ripken will be able to resume normal, "day-to-day" activities after about a month, Wren said. However, the general manager declined to predict when the 39-year-old infielder might resume baseball-related activities, pending further consultation with Bohlman and Jacobs.
"They think this will eliminate the problem," Wren said.
Though the club acceded to Ripken's wishes, exercising a virtual media blackout, orthopedic doctors familiar with the operation say the duration of Ripken's hospitalization suggests a more complicated procedure than merely addressing a herniated disk. A disk procedure typically allows a patient to leave the hospital the next day. More complicated surgeries for stenosis typically involve removal of bone spurs and shaving the canal in which the nerve lies to alleviate irritation.
Stenosis, a compression of nerves that branch out from the spinal cord, has become the accepted term for Ripken's condition, but team officials have never revealed its source. Wren suggested that yesterday's procedure should offer permanent relief; however, that is not the case in degenerative cases.
The procedure was classified as a "decompression" to relieve pressure from a nerve root.
Without specifying the cause, Wren said: "They had some expectations of what they would find. That's exactly what they did find and were able to alleviate the problem. From our standpoint, it went very well. We expect him to make a full recovery and be at third base on Opening Day 2000."
A University Hospitals spokesman said plans to explain the procedure and the full extent of Ripken's condition were scrapped at the family's request.
There is no need for clarification of Ripken's remarkable season, which ends with a career-high .340 average, 18 home runs, 57 RBIs and a .584 slugging percentage in 332 at-bats, despite two stays on the disabled list. Ripken had far fewer strikeouts (31) than extra-base hits (45) and played a solid third base. It is uncertain how the Orioles will envision him in light of yesterday's surgery. Though Ripken is still accorded starter status, obtaining a veteran backup will be considered.
"He played at a very high level," said Wren. "He was outstanding, even coming back off this last DL stint, getting two or three hits a night when we thought it was pretty much impossible for him to get to 3,000. That number kept getting below the number of games he had left to play, then it became a slam dunk. He was very, very impressive this season."
As for Ripken's being stood up by history, his mother said: "I don't think there is any doubt he'll get those nine hits. It just won't be this year."
Sun staff writer Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.