Ripkens are at 2 ends of injury scale

Ken Rosenthal

July 16, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Maybe it was destined to be this way, the older brother forever blessed, the younger brother forever cursed. Orioles second baseman Bill Ripken was already playing with one injury. Now he has another.

Forget the bulging disk in his lower back, the reason he's batting .216, according to hitting coach Tom McCraw. Ripken was a late scratch from last night's 2-1 victory over California because of a strained ribcage muscle on his right side.

Assistant general manager Frank Robinson rushed into manager John Oates' office after the game to determine whether a roster move was necessary, but the Orioles held off a decision until today.

Bill, 26, already has been on the DL five times in four seasons, not to mention on numerous occasions in the minor leagues. Cal, 30, has played 1,496 consecutive games, a streak that began in 1982, Bill's first year of pro ball.

Granted, Cal is unique, but Bill is no less stubborn. So what gives? Cal is 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, Bill is 6-1, 182. That's a significant difference, but it's not like Bill is the second coming of Pee Wee Herman.

"A lot of it is style of play," Cal said. "He's all-out. It's not a kamikaze style, but he's always been one to dive for balls, dive into first base. His style doesn't ask for injuries, but it seems like that's part of it."

Cal, on the other hand, is a master of positioning at shortstop. "My style is a little bit different," he said. "That's not to say I don't play all-out, but I go at it a little different. It's partly about luck, but he has that run-through-the-wall mentality."

So, Bill not only is less gifted, he suffers trying to maximize his talent. It hardly seems fair, but Bill said, "It's just one of those funny things about the game." In frustration, he added, "The game's so funny, no one ever laughs."

Go figure: Last year Bill led the Orioles with a .291 average and had as many doubles as Cal while outhitting him by 41 points. This year Cal leads the American League with a .334 average and is outhitting Bill by 118 points. The difference in extra-base hits is 43 to seven.

This could be a natural leveling off for Bill, a .219 hitter in 1988 and '89. But because of his back problem, no one knows for sure. He remained his usual acrobatic self in the field. Until his latest injury, that is.

As best he could determine, Bill injured his ribcage muscle turning a 6-4-3 double play Sunday in Oakland. "It hurts right now just standing here," he said last night. "It's like a constant pressure."

"He came to the ballpark today complaining that his chest hurt," Oates said. "But he figured he was OK, and went out for batting practice. On his fifth swing, he came down with a pain that was unbearable. I came in here and he had tears in his eyes. It was like he couldn't breathe."

In effect, Ripken is now getting it from both sides. His back problem has lingered since May 11, when he dove for a Ken Griffey Sr. grounder in Seattle. The injury appears relatively minor, but it could nag him the rest of his career.

Worst of all, there's little Ripken can do to improve his condition. Club physician Charles Silberstein said last night there is no guarantee he would benefit from an extended rest. Surgery is viewed only as a last option.

"With the proper exercise and the proper medical treatment he ought to get through the season uneventfully," Silberstein said. "There's no reason to think he'll need surgery because of the rest he'll get in the offseason."

But until then, all Ripken can do is endure. Twice in the last month he has received epidural steroid nerve blocks to reduce the swelling around the disk. "That's basically what pregnant women get," he said. "It's kind of an anti-inflammatory, probably cortisone's cousin."

Ripken described the procedure as "not very fun," but he refused to use his injury as an excuse for his offensive troubles. "So many things can enter into scuffling," he said. "It doesn't hurt all the time. Sometimes it doesn't hurt for three days."

Oates, in fact, was surprised by the mere suggestion of linkage. Pointing to a stretch in which Ripken batted .271 from May 25 to June 30, he stated flatly, "It's not the back. I don't think that has anything to do with his hitting."

McCraw disagreed.

"I know he's hurting enough to affect his performance," the hitting instructor said. "When he swings it hurts him. You can see that. I know he's hurting. I'm sure everyone here knows he's playing with pain.

"You've got to admire the kid for that. What hurts me is that I can't take him out to do some work and try and straighten him out. He has to save everything for the game."

The Supreme Court inspires less internal debate than your average major-league team, but never mind. Ripken batted .347 after July 25 last season. Surely there are reasons for his decline, and back pain figures as one.

Whatever, the basic fact remains:

One brother blessed, the other cursed.

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