Ripken ponders surgery on back Decision to come soon

desire for 'clean slate' may play role in choice

October 24, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

This morning Cal Ripken finds himself one week and two days into an off-season unlike any other.

There is the usual reflection on a year just completed. But this time, it is accompanied by uncertainty about possible back surgery, a shuffled roster and perhaps another managerial ouster.

Only one of those is under his control.

He can pick up his daughter, Rachel, but can't play pickup basketball. Ripken now sleeps uninterrupted by pain and can fold into a car without a searing sensation spiking through his lower back into his left leg, the limb that still carries residual numbness. He says the back condition that held him hostage for almost a half-season has gradually eased. Now, it only controls his schedule.

Ripken is well into a typically detailed examination of his options. Should he undergo surgery to alleviate a bulging disk? Should he take the gradual easing of pain as a sign that rest may cure the condition?

Either way, he acknowledges a decision must come relatively soon, almost certainly before Thanksgiving. The process involves second, third and fourth opinions and does not involve Orioles team physicians.

"I want to make sure I've considered everything possible," Ripken said. "I want to have the slate clean and not worry about doing something irresponsible to the team or to myself. Right now, I've got to figure out a strategy."

Ripken said his condition has improved noticeably the past "four or five weeks" -- roughly the same time frame when organization concerns about his deteriorating performance first became public. Ripken led the team with a .384 postseason batting average, produced his first multi-hit games since Sept. 5 and his first home run since Sept. 7. However, he also said that the numbness in his leg robbed him of power.

"It's hard to figure out why certain things happen. I was able to hit in a somewhat limited way. Because of the injury, I was not able to fully pull my body into a pitch or torque. I had to do things like shorten my swing and place the ball around," he said.

Ripken finished the regular season with a .270 average, 17 home runs and 84 RBIs, but endured a .156 September average with only seven RBIs.

For a stubborn man first able to thrive despite his pain, such concessions don't come easily. But having endured, there is a sense of accomplishment.

"It was one of those years when you dig down and test yourself and find out what's really important," he said. "Everything considered, I think I did that."

At times, Ripken said, he couldn't sleep. There was at least one morning he confided in his close friend, center fielder Brady Anderson, that he didn't believe he could play that night.

"For two, three, four, five days there were a lot of doubts," Ripken said.

In addition to nearly removing himself from a game in Oakland, he couldn't sit between innings. He knelt for relief, or stood leaning against a wall, or retreated to a bat room where he stretched his spine over a chair back.

"There were times I didn't think I would be able to go until the moment of truth and then I did. The greatest thing about the injury was that I was given the full support of the front office and Davey [Johnson]. He was relying on me to take whatever I had out there, and that motivated me."

Johnson, Ripken said, remained unswervingly supportive of him during the season's tough times. Each day the manager sought him out for input on his condition. "He was very encouraging. He let me know he was behind me. There were probably times he had more confidence in me than I had in myself," Ripken said.

Now, Ripken finds motivation in returning to watch a near-great team take its next step.

"I would love to have the same team and try it again," said Ripken, who considered this year's team potentially the best on which he'd ever played. "Over the years in my career, there have been two good teams at first [1982-83], then the experience of going through a total rebuilding process. There's been a lot of instability along the way. I think it would be preferable to have something stable to build upon year to year.

"I would want to go into spring training with the same team we left with, the same people I worked with, the same stability."

Of free agents Anderson and Randy Myers, Ripken said: "I like to assume they're both going to be back. I know that's an optimistic view. But it all lends itself to continuity. Those are key .. components."

In the aftermath of a 98-win season that closed in disappointment, Ripken has lent his support to the embattled manager. Though he said his role does not include active lobbying for a manager's job, Ripken linked Johnson's return to the stability he desires.

The six-game wipeout against the Indians was hurtful. Ripken missed his best chance for a World Series appearance since 1983. For many of his teammates, it would have been a new adventure. Yet, watching the Indians take the Orioles' place against the Florida Marlins, Ripken is also able to see through a veteran's perspective.

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