Ripken returns... for chat

Back little improved, Iron Man finds layoff to be one tough pivot

April 24, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Cal Ripken returned to the Orioles' clubhouse last night, dressed not in his comfortable home whites but in a business suit.

Five days after lower back pain forced him from the starting lineup in Toronto and four days after it pushed him onto the disabled list for the first time in his 19-year career, the All-Star third baseman admitted to still experiencing significant discomfort and added that he has little idea about the source of his nerve irritation, the length of his inactivity or even if he will play again.

Calling his separation from teammates a "sad feeling," Ripken appeared at a pre-game news conference at Camden Yards but left the park before last night's game. In contrast to the encouraging face he put on his back condition earlier this season, Ripken conveyed a more complicated, less upbeat situation.

"I need to do something to get well," he said. "What exactly that is, I don't know yet."

Measured with his answers and occasionally critical of media speculation, Ripken allowed that, "I'm about the same as I was when I left in Toronto. My overall condition hasn't gotten that much better."

The prospect of surgery has yet to be broached, said Ripken, for the first time experiencing the isolation of an injured player. He was relegated to the role of couch potato for the Orioles' three-game sweep in St. Petersburg earlier this week. Being there, he guessed, would only make the separation more acute.

"In some sense, it's easier watching through the TV screen than being physically at the ballpark," Ripken related. "That's another issue I'll have to come to grips with as I deal with the situation. I want to be around the club and I want the club to know I'm here. But beyond that I'm figuring it out."

Ripken's absence remains open-ended though he is eligible to come off the disabled list May 4. No one within the organization is willing to project such a timetable.

Having accepted a cortisone injection into his lower back Tuesday, Ripken has been ordered to refrain from any sort of physical exertion until a follow-up examination early next week.

Ripken's description of the pain that follows him left the clear impression that he will not be tempted to ignore his doctors' orders.

Ripken chose not to elaborate on his treatment except to discount that he has tried alternative remedies. He also criticized media "speculation" about the nerve irritation being related to the herniated disk that nearly put an end to his consecutive-games streak in 1997. Ripken remains under the supervision of Cleveland orthopedic specialist Dr. Hugh Bohlman and Orioles team doctors. Beyond that, he describes himself as being in a "fact-gathering" mode.

"I don't have a fear of the unknown, but I like to know things. During the process, I'm becoming more educated, which lets me deal with things better," he said.

Back problems accompanied Ripken into this season. The left side of his lower back spasmed during an April 4 workout, the day before Opening Day, and followed him into the first game, forcing him to leave during the third inning. Ripken missed three other games -- one because of a managerial decision -- before the middle and right side of his back seized last Sunday.

"People for some reason think there's some sort of secrecy going on. But it's a situation that merits serious consideration," Ripken explained. "Speculation doesn't help the process. I'm keeping everyone who needs to be informed."

Asked whether he still hoped to play, Ripken answered with a firm yes. Asked if he knew when, he could not offer even a guess.

"This is a situation where I don't have control. I can't will myself to go out and do it. It's a condition that needs to be fixed. I'm looking at ways to fix it."

When Ripken told reporters of his recurring back pain last Sunday he had seldom seemed more dejected. Yesterday Ripken received hugs and handshakes from teammates but couldn't find his name on the lineup board.

"The best thing in the world you can do is play baseball. I've always tried to maximize my opportunity and give whatever I have on that particular day to play the game. The passion for baseball is always going to be there," Ripken said, adding. "I can honestly say it takes a little wind out of your sails. It doesn't change how you feel about the game or your desire to play. But dealing with the situation when you can't play takes a little wind out of your sails."

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