Iron man Ripken steeled to endure O's spring is exercise in determination to leave back pain behind

March 10, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Somewhere along the otherwise deserted perimeter of a back field the Iron Man is already counting laps. For 30, sometimes 40 minutes this goes on, beginning around 8 a.m. Practice doesn't begin for another two hours, the day's game more than three hours after that. Taking any morning off isn't an option. Cal Ripken knows rust never sleeps.

As punishment for a herniated disk that nearly extinguished his consecutive-games streak last summer, Ripken, 37, has embraced a daily routine that would make many younger men buckle.

In the morning he is running man. In the afternoon Ripken becomes medicine man, twisting, grunting and heaving a 9-pound medicine ball nearly 60 feet. Sandwiched between is Ripken's on-field preparation for a 17th full season that is expected to extend his remarkable stretch of 2,478 games played.

"As you get older and move farther along in your career, you have to make certain adjustments," says Ripken. "You prepare yourself differently -- by weights, by running, by stretching, by exercising, whatever it takes."

This is what it takes this spring:

Ripken arrives before any of his teammates, changes into shorts and a T-shirt then takes off on his morning jaunt. He runs a prescribed number of laps, but varies the intensity from day to day. Some days he meets his quota in about 30 minutes; on other days he takes about 40. It is always more than a jog.

Following a game -- Ripken is now playing up to seven innings -- he again changes into shorts and leaves the clubhouse with Orioles strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop. Some days the two wait until game's end and head to the outfield at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Other times they'll circumnavigate the crowd, go to a back field and perform a strenuous series of exercises for 30 to 40 minutes.

Ripken calls his medicine "the green ball." Bishop devised the program -- which is exhausting just to watch -- as a means of strengthening the lower back that tormented the player from mid-July on last year. Ripken describes the goal as "trunk stabilization."

A more honest description might be how Ripken once described his off-season regimen. "I tried to break it."

Ripken hurls the medicine ball in four ways, two are twisting moves and two are underhand heaves. Each of the exercises is performed in two sets of 15, according to Bishop.

Typically, Ripken has embraced the rehab as a form of competition. He and Bishop have begun setting up cones to measure the distance of Ripken's throws of a ball that weighs as much as a small shot put and is larger around than a beach ball. Starting with the ball between his legs, Ripken has recorded a 55-foot forward heave and a 58-foot toss over his head in a wrenching move that sometimes takes him to the ground.

"He has an incredible energy level. It's that of a much younger man," says Bishop. "His purpose has never been to get through the exercises as quickly as possible. It's always been to do them as correctly as possible."

The workout produced one of camp's most bizarre sightings when Ripken and shirtless center fielder Brady Anderson began heaving the medicine ball with full exertion in the players' parking lot. With fans looking on, the two All-Stars launched the ball between Cadillacs, BMWs, a Lexus and Mercedes.

Another variant has Ripken and Bishop sit about 10 feet apart while handling a smaller 3-pound ball. Each man performs a sit-up with the ball held overhead. At the top of the sit-up, he tosses the ball to the other, who catches on the way down.

Bishop, a fellow hardbody, now struggles to keep up with his patient. Three or four times a week Ripken caps the medicine show with a 30-minute tour of the clubhouse weight room. There, his back forces one concession: no squats.

By enhancing the muscles around the problem area, Ripken hopes to avoid any painful relapse. Ripken and Bishop started the program Dec. 11, roughly three weeks after the third baseman decided against corrective surgery. There has been no let-up.

"It's something that was a little difficult to begin with because it requires its own coordination," says Ripken, who first performed the exercises inside a gym at his Reisterstown home. "It's meant to be demanding."

Demands will have to be met more creatively once the season starts. Morning runs will become more difficult if not impossible because of night games and fan attention. As for the medicine ball, it may become as much a part of Ripken's post-game routine as his celebrated midnight autograph sessions during the 1995 season.

"In one form or another, this might be something that I need to do for the rest of my career," Ripken says. "But you do it because it addresses a situation that I'd rather not go through again."

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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