Ripken swimming in biggest fishbowl

April 23, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, Fla. -- When Cal Ripken called his final news conference of spring training last week, reporters showed up from Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Toronto, Tampa, Milwaukee, Boston, Orlando -- more than 50 in all, a clattering little army that surrounded him in the dugout for 45 minutes on a warm, sunny morning.

That will be the constant in his life for the next four-plus months: a fishbowl far more magnified, far more intense, than even a longtime media biggie such as himself has ever experienced.

Ripken thought he was swamped at times before, trapped by his celebrity and his pursuit of history, but anything he endured before now was just warm-up stuff, just practice. His pursuit of Lou Gehrig's record of consecutive games played, which he is scheduled to break Sept. 6, will invade his daily routine as nothing has before.

"I don't know yet how it is going to play out," he said one morning last week.

Well, here is how: Big. Huge. One of the biggest sports stories in years, that's all.

Ripken will be confronted with a daily dose of cameras and questions and, beyond the demands of the press, a relentless stream of well-wishers seeking "just one second, Cal" and a chance to touch history as he zeros in on Gehrig.

His career is all about just blending in and playing ball, but he has no shot at that this year.

It wouldn't matter if all he had to do was chase Gehrig and deal with the added scrutiny, but he also has to play baseball, and play it well: As the cleanup hitter and shortstop on a team expected to contend in the AL East, he has a sizable load to carry.

That his two agendas might not be the perfect marriage is, well, a possibility.

"We do need production from him, obviously," Orioles manager Phil Regan said, "and, just as obviously, he's going to be under an intense spotlight all season. I've thought about that some. But he's such a professional, I think he can handle it."

It is easy to say that; Ripken's powers of concentration are the stuff of legend. Yet he said he was distracted three years ago by his protracted, in-season contract negotiations with the Orioles, which, he said, contributed to his worst offensive season.

His streak is certainly a more upbeat, positive distraction, but it will dwarf the contract stuff in its relentlessness and demands on his time.

He is able to joke about it now, with G-Day still four months away -- "What's the commotion about?" he said as he approached the media mob waiting for him in the dugout the other day -- but what about in late August, when he has heard every question 14 times and can't take a step without a minicam in his face?

Keeping his pursuit of Gehrig from affecting his performance will be his toughest challenge this year -- even tougher than catching Gehrig.

"It's a concern, no doubt about it," Ripken said. "I'm going to try to maintain a focus, do my best to keep up the usual routine. I don't know if that'll be possible or not. To be honest, I don't know what's going to happen. If anyone has any suggestions [about how to keep the crush from affecting him], I'm open to them."

The Orioles have their own suggestions, of course. They'll do what they can to protect him. They'll limit him to one news conference per series on the road, and send transcripts of his interviews and videotapes and audiotapes to some news outlets requesting his time.

But they can't keep him from being swamped in and out of the stadium, not when he is, to most fans, the only positive thing baseball has going for it right now.

Has he envisioned the nightly swarm in the clubhouse, the countdown, the glare of attention?

"I'm trying not to think about it," he said, smiling.

Of course, the best way to limit the focus on any individual accomplishment, no matter how historic, is to win.

Ripken brought that up when asked if he were concerned that all the commotion over his pursuit of Gehrig might distract his teammates.

"To be honest, I hope we're in that situation," he said. "Ideally, I'd like this year to turn out just like 1983. That was a super year for me personally [he was the American League's MVP], but by far the most important thing that happened is that we won the World Series.

"If we're winning or we're in a pennant race come September, that will be the focus."

Well, not exactly. The streak is an island in baseball's rough waters right now, untouched by the cynicism around it, impervious to anything that could diminish it.

It is going to be huge.

And Ripken is going to have to play through it.

That won't be easy.

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