How Ripken may end the run Perhaps this week, he would sit without notice, except to Miller

Deliver lineup card like Gehrig

September 20, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

This is how it might happen. This is how Cal Ripken might sit.

In a time and a place that only he knows, Ripken will walk into Ray Miller's office and relay perhaps the most difficult decision of his career. Miller, who witnessed the beginning of one of the game's most impressive feats on May 30, 1982, will then be responsible for marking its end.

The game probably will be of little consequence, coming at a time when neither the Orioles nor their opponent have a tangible goal left.

Actually, a game like one in the coming week against the Toronto Blue Jays or Boston Red Sox.

Ripken won't give advance warning to anyone beyond his agent, his marketing firm or his family circle. While Sept. 6, 1995 -- the night Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak -- was for public consumption, the unknown date when The Streak dies will not be advertised.

Ripken, not Miller, might hand the card to the plate umpire, just as the stricken Gehrig did on April 30, 1939, the day his career ended.

Only then will the change be announced to a stunned press box and an unaware crowd. Believing they were to witness two teams playing out the string, the gathering will instead witness history 16 years in the making. Perhaps it will be arranged for a national television audience, letting the entire nation experience a lifetime's moment.

One club official said Thursday night that there is a "remote" chance Ripken could sit this week. Ripken, who yesterday played in his 2,632nd consecutive game, predictably waved off the question.

"I guess you'll have to watch and see," the Iron Man said.

The issue has finally reached the door of Miller, just as it inevitably reaches every Orioles manager. Miller made clear yesterday that only Ripken will determine whether he should sit this week.

For the first time since the month Ripken eclipsed Gehrig's record, the Orioles face a stretch of largely meaningless games. Except for trying to hammer out a winning record and perhaps a third-place finish, their season died last week with consecutive one-run losses to the Red Sox.

In 1996, the Orioles rallied for an improbable wild-card berth. Last season, as Ripken willed his way through a painful disk condition that numbed his left leg and often made sitting excruciating and sleeping impossible, they won 98 games but didn't clinch the AL East title until the schedule's last week.

Broadcast math and talk-show hype have finally surrendered to reality: The Orioles confront a major rebuilding effort from the front office down. Suspicion exists that The Streak will be addressed internally this off-season, suggesting that its conclusion may no longer be for Ripken to decide. Instead of waiting for such an unseemly scenario, might it be better that the player handle the issue on his own terms?

Yesterday Miller tried to address the situation diplomatically. He is the third manager to hear these questions since Ripken passed Gehrig. And like Phil Regan and Davey Johnson, he struggles with them. However, Miller conceded yesterday that others may influence The Streak beyond this season's close.

"I don't know where it goes," said Miller. "It's common sense that we talk to him. I would like to think it would be his option. If a decision has to be made, it will be made. If it's the right thing to do, it will be done."

Playing no longer serves as a counter to print-stained wretches calling for his benching. Ripken's frequent adjustments this season have resurrected his batting average, which included a .333 rush in 50 games before this weekend's series. Miller has frequently returned him to the No. 5 spot in the order following a May assignment to the No. 7 spot.

While regularly criticized for diminished defensive range, Ripken leads American League third basemen in fielding percentage, having been charged with eight errors, 14 fewer than last season. At 38, Ripken has a chance to win a third Gold Glove six years after winning his last.

While Ripken still exhibits his zest for the game, wrestling with teammates, arguing with umpires and signing autographs until his fingers ache, he is also tired, according to several within his closed circle. Tired of predictable and sometimes disrespectful questions. Tired of the unsolicited advice about when to end The Streak. Sitting would allow him to begin next season as $l something other than a curiosity and a walking monument. He could again be Cal Ripken, ballplayer.

Ripken's sense of duty has always been: Who do the Orioles have better to play? The answer, of course, remains no one. But now the question has changed.

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