Ex-O's, experts advise Ripken

DeCinces, Grich, docs say beating bad back takes time, diligence

April 23, 1999|By Peter Schmuck, Jonathan Bor, Joe Strauss | Peter Schmuck, Jonathan Bor, Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

It may be no great consolation to Cal Ripken, but he isn't the first premier Orioles third baseman to struggle with a chronic lower back injury.

Third baseman Doug DeCinces fought a nerve irritation in his lower back for the last 10 years of his impressive major-league career, and had some of his best seasons after he developed a grueling routine to deal with the injury.

"I don't know his medical prognosis, but I've read that he has a nerve irritation," DeCinces said yesterday. "If that's the case, you have to get that calmed down. If you don't, you'll turn around and be right back in a muscle spasm. You have to wait it out. The more you push it, the longer it's going to take."

Ripken still is in the process of evaluating his options. He is undergoing a series of cortisone shots in an attempt to reduce the inflammation. Though a surgical option apparently has been available to him since he struggled with back pain in August 1997, he is expected to try to overcome the soreness without an invasive procedure that would likely cost him most of this season.

DeCinces knows a little bit about that approach. He was offered surgery in 1979 to remove a bone spur near his spine and repair a bulging disk. He chose to take a more conservative approach and played through the 1987 season, though he did miss significant playing time in 1983 and 1985 because of back pain.

"It's not like you can just walk on the field and do what you did in the past," DeCinces said. "You have to do all the precautionary things. I laid on a bed of ice after every game. I had a rigid heat and ice program. You just have to accept that part of your life is stretching and heat and ice. There's a lot of mind over matter."

Ripken is a very routine-oriented player who already has an extensive pre-game and post-game ritual, but there is no guarantee that a rehabilitation program will hold the back problem completely at bay.

"You're never going to be completely right, and that wears on you mentally," DeCinces said. "The back problem is always going to be there. Sometimes, you can play with it and sometimes you have to accept that you can't."

Right now, he can't

Ripken has been dealing with back soreness since 1997, when lower back spasms almost forced him to end his record consecutive-games streak in Oakland.

He survived that spasm -- and even thrived for the remainder of the season -- to extend the streak another year before voluntarily ending it last Sept. 20.

The streak, of course, was no longer an issue when Ripken suffered another severe back spasm during the Orioles' season-opening victory over Tampa Bay on April 5. He removed himself from the game and missed the next two before returning for the ensuing home series against Toronto, but it was evident that his mobility still was impaired.

He committed five errors in the space of four games and again removed himself from the starting lineup with renewed back soreness. He went on the disabled list Monday for the first time in his 19-year career.

Medical details are sketchy. The problem has been described as a "nerve irritation" and, by some accounts, is not directly connected to the disk problem that cropped up in 1997. In each case, however, the spasms and leg soreness are likely the result of abnormal pressure on the sciatic nerve.

Ripken remains doggedly protective of his treatment -- he referred last Sunday to questions about his receiving a cortisone shot on April 6 as "prying" -- but has made no secret of the discomfort that has followed him since April 4. It was during an Easter Sunday workout that he experienced escalating discomfort that nearly prevented him from starting Opening Day, and forced him to leave in the third inning.

He was examined by orthopedic specialist Dr. Hugh Bohlman in Cleveland on Monday afternoon and did not accompany the Orioles to St. Petersburg, Fla., on the final leg of their first road trip. He will be re-examined early next week, when he also is expected to receive a second cortisone shot.

Club officials have left open the chance of Ripken being activated on May 4, when he is eligible to return, but that is considered a remote possibility. Typically, complete rest of eight to 12 weeks is prescribed for patients suffering from Ripken's condition, depending on severity. Team officials have said the stifling pain that gripped him last weekend in Toronto has eased significantly but not yet vanished.

Should surgery become necessary for him to again play, Ripken will find himself at a crossroads, creating questions about returning next season at 39.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson missed most of the 1996 season with an apparently similar injury. He tried to avoid surgery and spent nearly three months working to strengthen his lower back, but eventually had disk surgery and missed the rest of the season. He returned the following year to post a 20-4 record for the Seattle Mariners, but was only 32 when he had surgery.

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