- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 25, 2001

BALTIMORE Cal Ripken didn't do much to celebrate his 41st birthday yesterday. He slept all morning after arriving home on the Baltimore Orioles' charter flight from Tampa at 4:30 a.m., lounged around the house for a few hours and arrived at Camden Yards around 4 p.m. to find out he was going to be the Baltimore Orioles' designated hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays.

All in all, it was a fairly uneventful day, a rare occurrence lately.

With 34 games left in his playing career, Ripken is living the good life and playing like someone nearly half his age. Since announcing June 19 that he will retire at the end of the season, he has batted .350 with eight home runs and 33 RBI.

In the process, Ripken has re-established himself as one of the Orioles' best players. And perhaps the acknowledgment by baseball's Iron Man that it's time to retire has played as big a role in his batting average skyrocketing from .207 in mid-June to .276 earlier this week.

"It's the right time," he said. "Probably I'm hitting pretty well because I know it's the right time. I feel good, I feel relaxed. It's given me an opportunity to really enjoy playing."

Two months ago, a Ripken rebirth seemed improbable. Hampered by a broken rib that kept him out of all but the last week of spring training, Ripken began the season with one hit in his first 19 at-bats and was soon informed by manager Mike Hargrove that his playing time would be reduced to part-time status uncharted territory for the man who holds the record for consecutive games played of 2,632.

Ripken's retirement announcement came as a surprise, too, not because the veteran of 21 major league seasons had decided to call it quits but because he decided to tell the world less than halfway through the year.

"I cringed when I thought about the concept of the farewell tour," he admitted. "I've been asked retirement questions for a few years now, but in spring training they asked if I would do that, and my immediate reaction was, no, it creates too big of a deal. It's not the way things are supposed to be. Just play the game of baseball, and if I decide at the end of the year based on what happened, then I could make my decision and it could be final."

But a funny thing happened once Ripken came to terms with his own baseball mortality. With no more pressure on him, no more questions looming over his head, baseball became a game again. And Ripken became a kid again.

"It took me a little while to figure it out and know that was the right decision," he said, "but once I made it, I couldn't keep it inside. I know it was the right decision. It cleared my mind and gave me a chance to actually enjoy the game of baseball the way I like to enjoy it."

The subsequent two months have become a blur of memorable moments. The home run at the All-Star Game, earning Ripken his second MVP award. The two home runs in his final game at Atlanta's Turner Field. A homer in his last series at Florida, at Texas, at Anaheim, at Kansas City. A 15-game hitting streak that began the day after he announced his retirement. A 16-game hitting streak shortly after, one shy of his career high.

"I can't explain that," Ripken said. "I know if I look at my own season, I broke my rib going into spring training. I had few at-bats in spring training. I thought I could come back and meet the challenge without spring training. I was wrong there. I was going back and forth in my own mind about the decision on retirement, so that made it hard for me to focus. Then all of a sudden I made the decision, I started to get enough at-bats and started to feel comfortable swinging the bat again. So it's a combination."

And as his career approaches its final month, Ripken seems poised to leave in grand fashion. His scheduled last game at Camden Yards Sept. 23 against the New York Yankees could turn into a marathon day. Officials at NASCAR are expected to announce soon that the Winston Cup MBNA 400 race in Dover, Del., that afternoon will be renamed the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400. Ripken himself will be honored before the race and will serve as starter.

The only thing preventing an official announcement is negations between the Orioles, the Yankees and ESPN, which would like to televise Ripken's last home game. Currently scheduled for a 1:35 p.m. start, the game will likely be pushed back to prime time, allowing a national audience to watch and allowing Ripken to make it back from the NASCAR event in time to play.

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