Sitting down would be a stand-up move

September 18, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

The Streak is more important than the World Series.

There, we said it.

No one with the Orioles will, least of all Cal Ripken.

A playoff berth is assured, the magic number for winning the division is seven and Ripken is so immobile, he's only fielding balls that are hit right at him.

But take a day off?

Perish the thought.

Too much of a distraction. Too much of a media circus. Too much of a chance Ripken might get rusty, as if he doesn't look that way right now.

Sorry, every argument for continuing The Streak is now invalid.

Ripken is hurt, and he's hurting the Orioles. If he doesn't rest his back before the postseason, he might even hurt them when it counts the most.

There, we said it.

And no, it wasn't easy.

Ripken has built The Streak over 15 years. He deserves the utmost respect. It has never before been suggested in this space that he should sit down.

Heck, only 12 days ago, we argued just the opposite, saying, "You take away The Streak, you take away part of Ripken's motivation. You take away his identity. You take away the essence of his career."

All of that is still true.

What has changed?

The condition of Ripken's back -- for the worse.

It happened Tuesday of last week in Cleveland. Ripken refuses to blame the injury for his 2-for-26 batting slump. But he admits that it affects his running. And, clearly, it's limiting his range at third base.

That's more than enough justification to end this thing, especially after the Orioles clinch the AL East, and maybe even sooner.

But Ripken is not going to end it. Manager Davey Johnson isn't going to end it. No one is going to end it, because The Streak is bigger than all of them.

The issue boils down to a fundamental question:

Why do the Orioles exist?

For those who might have forgotten, it's not for the sake of The Streak.

"I'm not thinking of The Streak. Don't make that assumption," Ripken said. "You want to prepare, you want to play, you want to get yourself right. You want to get your swing down, get to the point where you can contribute to winning.

"If the alternative is to take a month off and that would help my back, if I had a month to give, then that's an alternative. If the alternative is to take one day, two days, three days, and it's not going to be any better, you run the risk of being a little rusty. You can lose on both counts."

Perhaps, but you don't need to be an orthopedist to know that one way to treat lower-back trouble is with rest. Yet, when the Orioles played five games in a recent 48-hour stretch, Ripken missed only 3 1/2 innings.

The likely compromise is for Johnson to use Ripken as a designated hitter after the Orioles clinch, giving him time off at third without interrupting The Streak.

But why not take the next step?

Why not give him maximum time to heal?

Ripken said he feels "pretty confident" that a few days off wouldn't help him. But how would he know? It's not like he has tried it. And the back problem, he conceded, is "probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to deal with."

To fully appreciate the danger in his logic, flash forward to the division series against Seattle, which will be played on artificial turf indoors and probably in cooler weather outdoors -- two conditions that don't figure to help his back.

Ripken's diminished range at shortstop became a talking point during last year's American League Championship Series. If he struggled again after playing all 162 games, the entire country would ask, "Why didn't he sit down?"

Conversely, if Ripken ended The Streak with the idea of rejuvenating himself for the postseason, he'd be applauded for putting the team first -- and his near-perfect image would remain intact regardless of how he performed.

MA In theory, the decision is Johnson's, but everyone knows it's

Ripken's call. Ever the pragmatist, Johnson wants no part of the discussion, no part of a distraction, not with the postseason so near.

Basically, he's in an impossible position.

Johnson referred to The Streak yesterday as "a power" that will remain with the Orioles through the playoffs. And he warned of a media horde 500 strong descending on the club if this mystical force was somehow disrupted.

Please.

The media isn't running the team.

No question, the end of The Streak would be national news. But the Orioles could manage it the way they did when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's record. And if they won the World Series with a healthy, productive Ripken, they'd look pretty smart.

Right now, Ripken is not healthy, and he's not productive.

He's human.

There, we said it.

He could use a break.

"Bodily, sure it would help," said Dr. Bill Howard, a general surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Union Memorial Hospital. "He gets beat around a lot. It's a hard position to play. And he's 37.

"As strong as he is, as good a condition as he's in, as good an athlete as he is, his body is still a 37-year-old body. That's just the way it is."

It's an injury. It's reality. It's time.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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