Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. is approaching the 25th anniversary of his historic 2,131st consecutive game, a record that wasn’t supposed to be broken. A night he’s going to keep reliving as he gets closer to the date.
It’s certain to be one of the most important moments of the year for Ripken, but health scares bring a perspective that never fails to resonate.
Cancer comes before baseball.
Learning you have it and then beating it.
Ripken, who turns 60 on Monday, has gone public for the first time with news of his prostate cancer diagnosis back in February. He underwent surgery in March at Johns Hopkins Hospital and said he’s made a full recovery.
The cancer was detected through a routine medical checkup.
“My PSA was just inching up a little and there was movement in my PSA, which was well within my norm,” he said this morning in a Zoom conference call. “For someone my age it wasn’t really alarming. There could be other reasons why it comes up. Simply you could be riding a bike more than you were before and you’re sitting on your prostate and it causes your reading to be higher. So just as a precaution I went to a urologist, and the urologist did a few more tests to determine whether I needed a biopsy, and those tests came back iffy.
“The recommendation was to do a biopsy, which we did in mid-February, and it came back that I had prostate cancer. It was in the early stages, and trying to get around that news and what it means ... They say it’s a slow-moving cancer and you don’t have to make a really quick decision and all those things. The answer to do surgery was, it was the right decision to make and that was the easy part of it. But then getting yourself ready to do it was another one.”
The complication came in the timing of it, during a coronavirus pandemic. Ripken didn’t know whether he could get the procedure or be forced to wait.
“COVID hit right around that time,” he said. “There’s the whole process of hospitals being overrun. What happens to the hospitals, do they suspend elective surgeries and all that kind of stuff. I started to think about it and I go, ‘I don’t want to wait. If the right decision is to have surgery, then let’s just do it.’ So I called up the surgeon and asked if I could move it up and pick a date and he said, ‘When do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘As soon as I can.’ He goes, ‘How about this Friday?’ And just as quickly you make the decision and try to get used to the fact that you’re doing it, I went in early morning and had the surgery, walked around the hospital 3:30 in the afternoon and went home at 6:30 that night.
“I don’t know if I’m the only one that’s ever did it in and out on the same day with this kind of surgery. But the good news is it has a real happy ending. The cancer was all contained in the prostate, they did a pathology report afterward and confirmed that that was the case. I’ve since had a three-month test to see if my PSA was undetectable and it was, so we can make a case that all the cancer was contained and it’s all out now.
“Everything couldn’t have gone better in the surgery as far as the side effects and some of the things that could have happened afterward. None of those things happened. The nerves were preserved, everything looked good in surgery and it was very successful.
The instinct to maintain his privacy gave way to the need to share the information and promote the importance of undergoing regular checkups. To fight any sort of stigma or embarrassment related to the cancer.
“The weird part is when it first happens to you, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t want to tell anybody,’ he said. “It’s almost like there’s something wrong with you. I wouldn’t say the Iron Man contributes to it, but I was the kind of person who was thinking, ‘OK, I’ll just keep this a secret.’ But the longer you deal with it and you understand the outcome has been favorable and positive, the reason I’m letting it slip out now is I want to use the opportunity to help other people who struggle with that decision and encourage other people to go get their regular exams, get their tests.
“PSA was an indicator. There are other tests that can help you decide whether you need to go further or not.”
“I asked, ‘Have you been getting your regular physicals?’ And he assured me that he was and everything was fine there,” Ripken said. “That was my instinct to begin with was, it’s really easy to put it off and put your head in the sand and say, ‘This is just a normal part of aging.’ That this happens and there’s probably nothing wrong. Let’s just see what happens next year when I get my PSA. But I would encourage people not to do that.
“Men, for some reason, usually tend to put something off medically. We don’t really think it’s a big deal. You convince yourself that it’s something else. But I was able to react really quickly, and if you do catch it early, your chances and odds are really good that you can get it taken care of and resume your life exactly where you were.”
Ripken didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy treatments. The cancer didn’t break through the prostate and spread to other parts of his body.
“That’s way more problematic,” he said. “Mine was caught early and contained.”
Ripken naturally thought about his father, Cal Sr., the legendary coach and architect of “The Oriole Way” who died of lung cancer in 1999.
“There was a fear in my age growing up,” he said. “I think that’s changed. But Dad’s was lung cancer. It was different. It was caused by smoking and it spread all over his body. He didn’t get checkups. Even though we had all the medical stuff in the world, he refused to get his physicals and all that, so by the time he realized what he had, your options were limited. But when the word ‘cancer’ was said when I was growing up, that was a death sentence. All of a sudden you’re shocked and it never really ended well.
“There was an occasional case or two that somebody through intensive radiation would get to the other side, but it really was terrible news. And I’ve got to tell you, when it refers to you, it’s shocking, it’s not good news and your life flashes before your eyes and you start to think totally different. Even by going through the experience, as positive as it is, your perspective changes totally. But I will tell you with prostate cancer there’s been a lot of progress made.
“There’s a saying that most men don’t die because of prostate cancer, they die with it. It seems like it’s a normal occurrence that, as you live and age, that’s what happens, and usually it’s dealt with. But the treatments and diagnosing it early, there’s been a lot of progress made and it seems like it’s moving all the time. So the fear that I had to begin with turned into hope, especially when you gather more information, and then you actually go through the experience and realize if you do catch it early, the prognosis is really good. But if you don’t and have complications, it becomes much worse.”
Ripken retired following the 2001 season, his 21st in the majors. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in his first year of eligibility in 2007 after receiving 98.5 percent of the votes.
The local kid from Aberdeen and baseball’s Iron Man, who played in 2,632 consecutive games before removing himself from the lineup on Sept. 20, 1998.