Sometime around 8 a.m. today, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken stepped out of a limousine at University Hospitals of Cleveland and, three hours later, entered a room he had successfully avoided for 19 years. When he was wheeled out of that operating room 90 minutes later, one chapter in his career ended, and another, perhaps the finale, began.
The surgery to relieve nerve irritation in Ripken's lower back was performed by orthopedic surgeon Henry Bohlman. In a statement released by the hospital, Bohlman said the surgery was successful and that Ripken was expected to make a full recovery.
Ripken, 39, is expected to begin basic rehabilitation Friday and be fully recovered for spring training in February. Ripken's 1999 season, marked by two stints on the disabled list and some of the best offensive numbers of his career, ended with him nine hits shy of 3,000 for his career.
Both Bohlman, whom Ripken had visited at least two other times this season, and Orioles team orthopedist Michael Jacobs declined further comment. A hospital spokesperson said the media blackout came at the request of Ripken. Ripken's wife, Kelly, who was present at the hospital, also declined to comment.
What little is known about Ripken's procedure came from the Orioles. General Manager Frank Wren described it as a "decompression" to alleviate the "nerve root inflammation" in Ripken's lower back. Ripken has suffered from a narrowing of the spinal column, which causes pressure on the nerve. Wren spoke with Ripken Wednesday night by phone.
"He was in a great deal of discomfort," Wren said today in Baltimore. "That was the overriding feeling I got. He'd had other episodes of discomfort, but I sensed he was in more pain this time. Cal didn't verbalize that. I just sensed it."
The condition landed Ripken on the disabled list for the first time in his career in April, and again in August. Ripken, who voluntarily ended his record streak of 2,632 consecutive games played last Sept. 20, had hoped to avoid surgery, or at least put it off until the end of the season. But teammates confirmed Wednesday night that Ripken frequently had discussed the possibility of having surgery.
Some 36 hours before the surgery, Ripken was sculpting one of the greatest offensive seasons of his career. He was closing in on 3,000 hits at a remarkable pace. His .340 batting average and .581 slugging percentage will go down as the highest of his career, and his last 10 games produced 17 hits, including a 4-for-4 effort.
Manager Ray Miller suggested Ripken, were he to stay healthy, might have "another 1,000 hits in him." Today's successful surgery puts Ripken on track to return to the lineup next Opening Day. This July, the Orioles picked up the $6.3 million option on his contract for 2000.
The beginning of the end of Ripken's season came Tuesday night in the second inning of the Orioles' game in Arlington, Tex., against the Texas Rangers. When his ground ball to the right side bounced off the glove of Rangers second baseman Mark McLemore and bounded into foul territory, Ripken accelerated around first base, but hit the bag awkwardly, then slid into second base and got up with a visible wince.
Miller, sensing something was wrong, asked Ripken if he was all right, and Ripken said yes. But Miller removed him from the game in the eighth inning. By the following morning, after being unable to sleep because of back spasms, Ripken was on a plane for Cleveland to see Bohlman, phoning only team trainer Richie Bancells.
A hospital employee said Ripken was "in a lot of pain" when he arrived Wednesday evening. He underwent an MRI exam, and the results were compared with previous MRIs of Ripken's back taken earlier this season during visits to Bohlman. Apparently, the narrowing of Ripken's spinal column had worsened. By around 10 p.m. Wednesday, Ripken and Bohlman agreed that surgery was the proper course.
After Ripken arrived at the hospital this morning, he went through standard pre-op procedures, was placed under general anesthesia and taken to an operating room on the second floor of the hospital's Mather Pavilion.
The surgery, scheduled for 10 a.m., began about an hour late because of Bohlman's surgery schedule this morning, but it went so well that it ended about an hour sooner than expected. Ripken was taken briefly to a post-op recovery room and was admitted to a private room late this afternoon.
Ripken is expected to remain in the hospital for at least two more days, and could be "up and around," according to Wren, within a month.
Staff writer Richard Justice contributed to this report from Baltimore.