Time, pain will test Iron Man

April 06, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

For Cal Ripken, Opening Day figured to be difficult emotionally. The last thing anyone expected was that it would be difficult physically, too.

Ripken bowed his head, shifting his weight from one leg to the other during the moment of silence and video tribute to his late father, Cal Ripken Sr. The Orioles unveiled an orange "7" in the third base coach's box in memory of Senior. And then the game began, the 18th opener of Junior's Hall of Fame career.

Who could have imagined that he would be removed due to injury for the first time that anyone could remember? Who could have imagined that the health of the Iron Man would be a concern just one game into the 1999 season?

Fourteen years ago, Ripken sprained his ankle in the second game of the season against Texas, but did not miss a pitch. He skipped an exhibition the next day at the U.S. Naval Academy, and returned to the lineup the next night against Toronto.

He was 24 then.

He is 38 now.

And suddenly, fragile enough to be sidelined with lower-back stiffness, taken to a hospital and listed -- like the rest of us mortals -- as day-to-day.

"Back pain is tough to imagine," said Ripken's teammate and friend, Brady Anderson. "If you've ever had it, it can feel like you're not going to be able to ever walk again. But sometimes, it heals within hours.

"He's the Iron Man. I'd bet on hours."

So, he will play tomorrow night?

"He's really not known as a malingerer," Anderson deadpanned.

The Orioles' party line is that this is no big deal. That Ripken is slightly off-kilter after missing seven games late in the spring due to his father's illness and death. That he experienced natural stiffness playing in cool weather for the first time. That it was best to play it safe with a day off today.

Certainly, no one would count out a player who made 2,632 straight starts, breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record by more than 500. But it was downright strange to see Ripken removed for pinch hitter Willis Otanez in the third inning, and the Orioles record a 10-7 victory over Tampa Bay without their All-Star third baseman recording a fielding chance or an official at-bat.

This was not like last Sept. 20, when Ripken ended The Streak on his own terms, asking manager Ray Miller to remove him from the lineup. Ripken twice reported discomfort to Miller yesterday before the manager made the decision to insert Otanez.

"I don't want to lose you," Miller told Ripken. "I want you to get 3,000 hits this year."

Ripken is 122 hits short of 3,000, 16 homers short of 400. This could be his final season, with the Orioles holding a $6.3 million option on his contract for 2000. Even after yesterday, it's almost impossible to imagine his physical condition becoming an issue in the club's decision.

This isn't another aging ballplayer.

This is Cal Ripken.

He played through a herniated disk in the final two months of the 1997 season, enduring what Anderson described as "brutal pain." This injury is not believed to be as significant. It might not even be related. Ripken was fine in spring training. He took pre-game batting practice and pre-game infield yesterday, followed all his normal routines.

But by the game's second at-bat, his teammates could tell that his movement was restricted.

On a normal day, Ripken might have charged Dave Martinez's bunt, but pitcher Mike Mussina never saw him or heard him as he raced to the third base line to field the ball. Mussina flashed back to a similar play in Oakland on Aug. 2, 1997, when Ripken first injured his back, and did not react.

"Usually, he's yelling at me or calling me off," Mussina said. "He gives me every chance to cover the line. But on a really good bunt, he immediately calls me off. It was a really good bunt. He didn't come like he normally does. I got a sense that something was going on."

The second inning produced an even more curious sequence. Ripken came to bat for the first time after a leadoff walk to Jeff Conine with the Orioles trailing 1-0. He showed bunt on the first pitch, laid down a sacrifice on the second.

Did he bunt because of the situation, or because he was in pain?

"Both," Miller said.

Miller said that Ripken ran down the line fairly well, without dragging his leg the way he did in '97. But his stiffness persisted, and Otanez went 0-for-3 in his place before Jeff Reboulet moved to third and Jesse Garcia to second in the eighth inning.

Ripken was building toward a comeback season. Coping with the loss of his father. And now this.

"I would imagine his worst emotional days already occurred when he was with his family," Anderson said. "I'm also quite certain it's going to be rough for him, for who knows how long. Do you ever get over the loss of your father? I would doubt it."

Suddenly, the Iron Man is everyman.

And the 1999 season looms as his most difficult test.

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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