A night reserved for special appearances began with Albert Belle doling flowers to dumbstruck fans at Gate A, Cal Ripken smuggling himself into the home clubhouse about 30 minutes before the first pitch and Ramon "The Other" Martinez emerging as a postseason factor for the Boston Red Sox.
Like the majority of his more active teammates, Ripken was reduced to a spectator as four Red Sox pitchers combined for a three-hit, 8-0 shutout of the Orioles at sold-out Camden Yards. Nine days after undergoing 90-minute back surgery, Ripken was able to sit, stand and stoop from his fourth-tier box, providing the first hopeful sign for Orioles 2000.
"I don't have any fear right now. The fact I'm walking and moving around and feeling pretty good after surgery are good indicators. I don't have a fear of trying it again," said Ripken, who visited teammates after they had distributed flowers in a pre-game gesture of fan appreciation. "The only way you find out is by doing it. My intentions are to get better physically, pick up the bat, get in shape, find the swing and find the comfort I had at the plate so I can apply that to next year."
Ripken appeared hale and well-rested. When manager Ray Miller greeted him by mentioning he looked 10 years younger, Ripken replied, "When you don't have pain [that's what happens]."
Ripken will always carry this season's .340 average, 18 home runs and 57 RBIs in only 332 at-bats. Sidelined three times by injury, he also will remember the year with ambivalence.
"It was a great year; it was a discouraging year. Mentally it was uplifting and also the worst. As far as the hitting goes, I rediscovered the swing I had," Ripken said.
"If you had your druthers I would have loved to see what I could have done if I'd had that swing for 650 at-bats. But that's unrealistic."
Since undergoing the operation in Cleveland Sept. 23, Ripken had maintained a low profile. Doctors initially estimated he would require about one month before resuming normal day-to-day activities and another three to rehabilitate. Last night's public reappearance represented a milestone in itself.
"It's great to watch it like I did tonight, being able to stand up, come to the ballpark and be here. It's much worse lying flat on your back trying to watch TV," said Ripken.
"It's just like any of the other experiences -- being on the disabled list, wanting to play but not being able to play physically, being unsure about coming back from the disabled list."
The only thing worse for the Orioles than the season ending would be if it continued. Jason Johnson, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson missed their final turn in the rotation, Johnson because of a domestic accident involving a rain delay and a table, the innings monster Erickson because of stiffness in his right forearm and Ponson because of an innings load that has caused his shoulder to scream.
Doug Johns (6-4) made his fifth start of the season because of Erickson's condition. A four-run sixth inning featuring a pair of two-run home runs by Mike Stanley and Lou Merloni accounted for the game's initial offense.
The Red Sox made a rout of it in the ninth when Damon Buford hooked a one-out grand slam around the left-field foul pole for an 8-0 lead.
Ripken's appearance at least put a smile on an otherwise faceless night. Projecting his initial rehabilitation at "four to six weeks," Ripken says that he may resume baseball-related workouts around Dec. 1 and thinks it likely he will participate when full-squad workouts begin next spring.
"That'll give me the full month of December, the full month of January and part of February before coming to spring training," said Ripken. "That was one of the pluses and advantages of having surgery at this time. It gives me the full off-season to recover."
Ripken attempted to quietly take in the game with his wife, Kelly, from the family's box behind the plate. However, that plan evaporated when the stadium matrix showed him during the middle of the fifth inning. Ripken initially appeared uncomfortable, waving sheepishly, before slowly rising to acknowledge a standing ovation from a pleasantly surprised crowd of 48,338. As the cheering persisted, Ripken leaned over the front of his box to shake hands with fans.
An inning later Ripken appeared alongside Mike Flanagan and Michael Reghi on Home Team Sports, then rights holder WBAL and then before local press.
His first move before reporters was to bend over and playfully expose a six-inch scar.
Speaking for the first time since leaving the team in Texas less than two weeks ago, Ripken said his back began to ache during the seventh inning of a Sept. 21 game against the Rangers. "I knew it was a little bit more serious than that," Ripken said.
He then approached Miller about coming out, had ice applied to the affected area and eventually returned to his Dallas hotel room. Between 2 and 3 a.m., Ripken awoke in excruciating pain and immediately decided he needed to seek help from Case Western University orthopedic doctor Henry Bohlman.
"When I headed there it was in the back of my mind to get it fixed," Ripken said.
Last night it was the Orioles' offense that was beyond repair. Ramon Martinez (2-1) had baffled the Orioles for seven innings at Fenway Park Sept. 25. The win came on his first start since June 14, 1998, and his first win since 11 days before that. Surgery on his right rotator cuff jeopardized his career and led the Los Angeles Dodgers to release him last winter. The Red Sox signed him hopeful of his contributions next season.
The elder Martinez brother's second win in eight days against the Orioles was marred by only two singles -- one by B. J. Surhoff, the other by Derrick May -- and two innocuous walks. Eugene Kingsale's pinch single in the ninth was the only other Orioles' hit.
The younger brother, the Cy Young Award lock and possible MVP, completed the Orioles' double Martinez dinner with a scoreless 13-pitch seventh inning. Martinez was merely tuning up for the Red Sox's Division Series opener Wednesday.
For the Orioles, the loss means they must win today to match last season's 79-83 finish. Since winning 13 straight games Sept. 7-22, the Orioles have lost six of eight, coincidentally the same time when they resumed playing teams within their own division.
The Orioles enter today's finale with a 15-33 record within the American League East. No other team in either league has floundered as badly within its division. They also own a 22-48 record against AL teams with winning records.
Opponent: Boston Red
Sox Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Pat Rapp (6-7, 4.18) vs. undecided
Tickets: About 2,500 remain