3,000 career hits; With Iron Man reaches latest mark, adding new page to scrapbook of 'Glory Days'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MINNEAPOLIS -- Future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken couldn't hold off until he got home. He collected three singles last night at the Metrodome to become the 23rd player in baseball history to amass 3,000 hits, reaching what figures to be the last major milestone of his amazing career.

Ripken lined a base hit to center field off Minnesota Twins reliever Hector Carrasco in the seventh inning to cap his first multi-hit game of the season and add another page to the fairy-tale life of Baltimore's home-grown baseball hero.

The crowd of 18,745 stood throughout Ripken's fourth at-bat of the game. Carrasco, perhaps a little nervous about his unexpected role in baseball history, threw the first pitch to the backstop, allowing Albert Belle to score from third with an important run in a 6-4 victory. Ripken lined the second pitch cleanly to center and was greeted at first base by coach and fellow 3,000-hit Oriole Eddie Murray.

The rest of the team gathered around Ripken at first base as the crowd sustained a long standing ovation and the public address system struck up Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." Ripken was given the ball, which he carried to the stands and flipped to his wife, Kelly, before returning to first base to resume the game.

"It seemed like everything was in slow motion when I hit it," said Ripken, flanked at a post-game news conference by Kelly Ripken and their children, Rachel and Ryan. "Big relief. Big, friendly face at first base. To see Eddie Murray waiting there, that was special."

Murray, who mentored Ripken after he arrived in the major leagues in 1981, also got his 3,000th hit at the Metrodome five years ago.

"He said, 'Way to go' and 'Welcome to the club,' but it goes deeper than words," Ripken said. "I learned a lot from Eddie about the right approach to the game. I've said before, I learned the game from my father, but Eddie showed me the way."

The suspense built throughout the evening. Ripken grounded out in his first at-bat against Twins starter Sean Bergman, then tagged him with a soft line drive to right field for No. 2,998 in the fourth inning. The countdown continued in the fifth, when Ripken hit a high chopper off home plate and reached first without a throw from third baseman Corey Koskie.

After each hit, the Metrodome crowd gave him an increasingly enthusiastic ovation. The stands were far from full -- perhaps because Ripken needed such a big performance to make his milestone -- but the acoustics of one of the noisiest venues in sports enhanced the crowd reaction.

"It's a great feeling to stand in an opposing ballpark and be welcomed as one of their own," said Ripken, who responded by signing autographs for a half-hour after the game.

"I felt compelled to share some of that with them."

Minnesota baseball fans should be getting used to this by now. Ripken became the third player to get his 3,000th career hit at the Metrodome. Murray reached the milestone here as a member of the Cleveland Indians on June 30, 1995. Outfielder Dave Winfield got his 3,000th as a member of the Twins on Sept. 16, 1993.

No doubt, Orioles fans would have preferred that Ripken had waited until the club returned to Camden Yards for the three-game series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that begins tomorrow night, but Ripken said early in the six-game road trip that he wanted to get his latest date with destiny over with as soon as possible.

"Obviously, it would have been as thrilling sensation to do it in Baltimore," Ripken said, "but there also is an obligation to the game.

You can't go out there and not try to get hits. I've been able to celebrate a lot of great things with the hometown folks, but tonight I was just happy to get some hits."

Last night was sooner than anyone could have expected, considering that Ripken had not had more than one hit in a game during the first two weeks of the season and was batting a meager .176. The three-hit performance raised his average to .231.

It took Ripken exactly 2,800 games to get to 3,000 hits, an 18 1/2-year quest that began with a nondescript single off Chicago White Sox pitcher Dennis Lamp on Aug. 16, 1981.

Only four other current uniformed personnel were on the field that day -- Murray, coaches Elrod Hendricks and Terry Crowley, and then-opponent Harold Baines.

"And to think they wanted to make him a catcher," Hendricks said with a laugh last night. "Earl Weaver said, 'No way.' He said, 'He's going to be a shortstop, and he's going to be in the major leagues a long time.' "

Baines admitted that he didn't remember that first hit in 1981, but he will remember this one, and -- with 2,793 -- might be the 24th player to join one of baseball's most exclusive fraternities.

"To be part of history is very special," Baines said. "To also win the game, that makes it even more special. He has played a long time. He's very deserving."

The Orioles had hoped that Ripken would open the season on a tear and deliver the historic hit during the season-opening homestand against the Cleveland Indians and the Detroit Tigers. The club even hung numerical banners on the B&O; warehouse to chronicle each of the final nine hits and evoke memories of the poignant celebration that took place at Camden Yards when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's "unbreakable" record of 2,130 consecutive games in September 1995.

Ripken unfurled No. 2,992 on Opening Day with a bloop double to right field, but he would get only three more hits during the homestand. He continued to inch closer during the first two games of the road series against the Kansas Royals and arrived in Minnesota for the weekend series on the threshold of another major career achievement to go along with his record 2,632 consecutive games played.

But this celebration was seven months in the making. Ripken was closing hard on the milestone last September when severe back soreness knocked him out the lineup for the third time. He played his final game of the season on Sept. 21 against the Texas Rangers at The Ballpark in Arlington, then took a flight to Cleveland the following day to undergo surgery.

"I didn't imagine it would be be so hard to get these last nine hits," said Ripken, "but it was a phenomenal experience, and I'm glad it's over."

Though the back injury sidelined him three times during the '99 season, Ripken adjusted his batting stance and put up outstanding offensive numbers in the limited time that he was available to play. His .340 batting average was the best of his career, and his run-production totals -- if stretched over his usual 162 games -- would have been in line with his best offensive seasons.

If he could have stayed in the lineup another week, he might have celebrated career hit No. 3,000 during the final 1999 homestand at Camden Yards and provided an upbeat postscript to an otherwise disappointing season.

He also would have joined fellow future Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs in a rare historic hat trick. Gwynn got No. 3,000 off Montreal Expos pitcher Dan Smith on Aug. 6, and Boggs reached the milestone against Cleveland pitcher Chris Haney on Aug. 7.

Ripken did reach another important milestone during the final weeks of 1999, hitting his 400th career home run off Tampa Bay pitcher Rolando Arrojo on Sept. 2 at Oriole Park. He becomes only the seventh player in major-league history to accumulate at least 3,000 hits and 400 home runs, joining longtime teammate Murray, Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski, and likely 2001 Hall of Fame inductee Dave Winfield.

There was a point last spring, however, when both milestones seemed very much in doubt. Ripken was devastated by the death of his father, Cal Ripken Sr., during spring training, and had to remove himself from the season opener when his back locked up -- a disturbing harbinger of things to come.

The R-word even started to crop up. Ripken acknowledged that he had reached the twilight years of his impressive career, but he battled all year to prove that he could still be a star-quality player. Then he battled all winter to strengthen his surgically repaired back for at least one more season.

Where he once winced at the mention of retirement, he seems to have come to grips with the likelihood that this year or next could be his last as an active player.

"Nobody can play at this level forever," he said the other day, when the issue was raised during an impromptu news conference in Kansas City. "I know that some people like Nolan Ryan have defied it, but at this point, you just evaluate as you go."

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