Ripken finally backs down

`Locked up' back improves, but 1st sick day in 17 years needed

April 08, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles added another day -- and a significant degree of intrigue -- to Cal Ripken's recovery from lower-back pain yesterday as manager Ray Miller reversed course over whether to sit the game's Iron Man due to injury for the first time since 1982.

Less than 24 hours after insisting a conversation with the third baseman pointed toward his return, Miller scratched the 38-year-old All-Star in favor of rookie Willis Otanez. Miller made the decision after speaking with Ripken more than four hours before last night's first pitch against Tampa Bay.

"He told me he thought it was 90 percent better than it was two days ago. I told him if I was going to err I was going to err on the side of caution," Miller said.

Miller said he arrived at Camden Yards intent on playing Ripken. He even produced his initial lineup card, which had Ripken listed as the Orioles' No. 6 hitter. Ripken said he felt noticeably better yesterday than on Tuesday.

"[Tuesday] I felt there was no chance of playing," Ripken said. "Today I felt there was a chance."

Ripken's situation will be re-evaluated this afternoon, Miller said. Should he remain unable to play by tomorrow night against Toronto, the club will consider placing the Iron Man on the disabled list for the first time in his 19-year career.

Miller insisted yesterday that Ripken's "day-to-day" status leaves the decision to the manager, and he was only exercising his prerogative to prevent a problem from becoming worse. Asked if his apparent reversal from Tuesday represented a "managerial" decision or an "organizational" call, Miller immediately interpreted the question as suggesting meddling by ownership.

"The owner had nothing to do with it," Miller said abruptly. "I haven't talked to the owner since I've been" back from spring training.

Citing last September's end to Ripken's remarkable consecutive-games streak, Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos on Tuesday suggested caution in dealing with Ripken's condition.

"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.

Ripken's absence raised inevitable questions about whether the absence of his streak, which ended after 2,632 games, might have influenced the situation. Ripken insisted that had he experienced similar pain before Sept. 20 he would have ended the streak then.

"I think I would judge the situation just as I judge it right now. You're honest with yourself. You're honest with your manager. It is what it is," he said.

For his part, Miller allowed that a different scenario might have brought about a different decision.

"I think with an older club you're always going to use better judgment," Miller said. "Of course, The Streak was something. Fortunately for us, it's not there anymore so you can use a little better judgment. I'm sure there are going to be days when I rest him and he's not going to be happy about it."

Miller said he also hadn't spoken directly with team orthopedic doctor Michael Jacobs. Instead he has dealt directly with head trainer Richie Bancells, who has been banned by the front office from taking reporters' questions. Jacobs also is prohibited from speaking to media.

The resulting intrigue has only fed a situation that caused Ripken more than a little embarrassment. When it was suggested he was at "90 percent," Ripken called the description "wishful thinking."

"If it was 90 percent, it would be a no-brainer [to play]," Ripken said. "I came out of the game the other day because I couldn't play. If I could've finished it if I could've played, I would have."

Ripken described Monday's sensation as "locked up." When he tried to charge a first-inning bunt by Devil Rays right fielder Dave Martinez, Ripken said his left leg abandoned him.

"It got to the point where I was totally locked and I couldn't move my left leg for about two seconds," Ripken said. "At that point you have a talk with yourself and say, `I can't be out here.' So I went to Ray and told him I couldn't go."

Ever since, the front office has said little. General manager Frank Wren downplayed the situation after Monday's game, trying to maintain a lockdown on information regarding the player's condition.

Ripken, meanwhile, was asked yesterday to explain medical intricacies and the apparent discrepancies in the degree of his discomfort. On whether his current condition is directly related to the herniated disk that threatened to end the streak in 1997, Ripken said, "That hasn't been determined yet. Now we're dealing with the symptoms and trying to figure that out."

He acknowledged that Monday's pain surpassed anything he experienced in 1997.

"It just got to the point where it locked up and I couldn't move right. That hasn't happened to me before so I came out," he said.

Ripken traced the beginning of his current problem to Sunday's workout when he experienced "a twinge." He still took extra batting practice with Brady Anderson.

When he arrived at the park Monday, Ripken hoped to loosen his back before game time. Slight improvement gave him a false hope.

"In this particular case, I wasn't feeling as great as I'd like to on Opening Day. As the day went on, it loosened up a little bit and gave me a ray of hope. Then it changed."

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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