Streakless Ripken still isn't sitting

Iron Man convinces Miller his back is OK a day after early exit

Angelos: Don't push it

Last time injury forced him out was in May '82

April 07, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Ray Miller says that Cal Ripken will be his starting third baseman tonight. Only Ripken's back has the power to intervene.

An afternoon conversation between player and manager was enough to convince Miller that there is no need for another precautionary day of rest following Ripken's early exit from Monday's season opener because of lower back stiffness.

"I wrote him in the lineup today and I'll make adjustments if I have to," Miller said.

Miller was forced to adjust in the bottom of Monday's third inning when back pain prevented Ripken from bending at the waist. Willis Otanez pinch hit for Ripken and remained in the game until Jeff Reboulet replaced him for defensive purposes in the eighth inning. Otanez would likely start if the condition flared anew today.

Others within the organization, including owner Peter Angelos, advocate a cautious approach. Ripken removing himself from a game would seem to suggest a serious problem, especially given his refusal to yield to an excruciating herniated disk during the 1997 season.

"I don't think he should push it. I think he should take whatever time he needs to get back to 100 percent," Angelos said. "For him to come out of that game, knowing how he can endure pain like no other player, he must have really been hurting."

However, it is believed Monday's incident had more to do with a change in climate, an extended pre-game ceremony and a passing spasm.

"If it tightens up again, or if there's an additional problem, he'll be out of there," Miller said.

Ripken hasn't missed a game due to injury since being beaned May 2, 1982, by Oakland A's pitcher Mike Moore. Ripken's consecutive-game streak began the same season on May 30, extending 2,632 games until he took himself out of the lineup last Sept. 20. Monday marked the first time since The Streak began that Ripken left a game because of injury.

The Streak's end at least allows the condition to be dealt with in something other than a circus atmosphere. Ripken left Camden Yards with his wife, Kelly, during Monday's seventh inning. He was driven to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he was examined by team orthopedic doctor Michael Jacobs. Ripken apparently did not return for treatment yesterday.

Ripken could not be reached for comment; however, a difficult spring training also may have contributed to Monday's spasms. Ripken increased his time spent on baseball-related activities while decreasing his time spent on exercises performed almost daily during the previous spring's rehabilitation of his lower back. Ripken also served as his family's anchor as his father, Cal Sr., lost his fight with lung cancer. Ripken left the team on March 23, two days before his father's death, and returned on March 31.

Ripken insisted The Streak did not affect his decision to persevere through the '97 season. His decision to play tonight would seem to support that stance.

Given that Ripken's current consecutive-games streak stands at eight, the vigil over his status is less frenetic. Indeed, there is sentiment within the organization that circumstances would allow for Ripken to take tonight off and perhaps return tomorrow or Friday.

"Now, under these circumstances, with The Streak not a consideration, he can take whatever time is required," Angelos said.

The extent of Ripken's discomfort Monday could be proven by a bunt single and his teammates.

First baseman Will Clark half-expected Ripken to be a late scratch from the lineup. Center fielder Brady Anderson also noticed his friend's discomfort. Still, Ripken fully participated in pre-game infield and batting practice, unlike his worst days during the '97 season.

Orioles starting pitcher Mike Mussina knew something was wrong in the first inning when the second batter he faced, Devil Rays right fielder Dave Martinez, dumped a shallow bunt near the third base line. Ripken, who typically charges the play, hardly moved from his position.

Mussina said he experienced a "flashback" to '97 when Ripken was similarly immobilized. "If it's a real good bunt, he immediately calls me off the play. It was a real good bunt. He didn't come like he normally does. You just get that sense that something's going on."

An inning later, in his first plate appearance of the season, Ripken squared once, then again vs. left-handed Devil Rays starter Wilson Alvarez. The popped bunt caused Alvarez to dive for a catch. When he missed, Ripken was forced to grind for 90 feet. He was narrowly thrown out and received only intensified pain for his effort. The sacrifice bunt was only the sixth of Ripken's career, his second since Sept. 10, 1990.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7: 05 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Devil Rays' Tony Saunders (6-15, 4.12 in '98) vs. Orioles' Juan Guzman (10-16, 4.35)

Tickets: Less than 8,000 remain Pub Date: 4/07/99

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