Ripken future's punctuated by question marks

Inside the Orioles

Club contract option for '00 also cloudy as pain persists

April 25, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Two black-and-orange travel bags sat stacked inside a vacant locker at Tropicana Field. On either one was stenciled a No. 8. Around the taped handle were written simple instructions: Do not unpack.

Cal Ripken did not accompany his Orioles teammates to Tampa Bay last week. Instead his aching lower back took him to the 15-day disabled list Monday following a layover at a Cleveland orthopedic doctor's office.

The Orioles have classified his condition as "nerve irritation," but the third baseman says doctors have yet to diagnose the source. An easy guess is the herniated disk that dogged him in 1997. Like much else written regarding his condition, Ripken classifies such drugstore diagnosis as "speculation."

This much is certain: Ripken's back feels little better now than a week ago when he could barely pack his bags in a Toronto hotel room. He is a virtual lock to remain on the DL well beyond May 4, when he is first eligible to return. And his career is irrevocably changed.

Whenever the Iron Man returns, he will become a semi-regular who frequently sits on artificial turf and against dominant right-handed pitching. Manager Ray Miller already had begun the process before Ripken was placed on the disabled list. To say Ripken's Opening Day removal from the third inning represents the beginning of his end is incorrect. That process began in July 1997 when his herniated disk first revealed itself.

None of this should come as a surprise. Ripken, 38, is at an advanced age for a position player, especially given his unyielding demands of himself while playing 2,632 consecutive games, including 2,216 at shortstop. Since Aug. 1, 1997, Ripken has batted .265 with 19 home runs and 85 RBIs in 823 at-bats. From Opening Day 1996 through July 1997, he batted .277 with 38 home runs and 168 RBIs in 1,061 at-bats.

Former general manager Pat Gillick projected Ripken's career timetable to ownership as early as 1996. Last November, one month after Gillick's departure, the Orioles tipped their hand with their pursuit of free-agent third baseman Robin Ventura.

Those talks, however, were held hostage by disastrous negotiations with first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who stiffed the Orioles at virtually the same moment that Ventura went to the New York Mets. Had Ventura signed, Ripken would have been ticketed for his second position switch in three years.

The Orioles, of course, find themselves in a delicate public relations position. They confront a mid-July deadline for assuming Ripken's $6.3 million option for 2000. Fair to say, it's unlikely the club will make such a commitment to a player confronting such obvious health and performance issues -- even one who represents what Ripken embodies.

"Just because we might not assume the option does not mean Cal wouldn't be part of this team next season," general manager Frank Wren said Friday. "All it means is that another arrangement would be worked out."

It is far more likely the Orioles will decline Ripken's option and exercise a $2.5 million buyout, then attempt to negotiate an incentive-laden, one-year deal. Such an arrangement could allow Ripken to approach a $6 million deal based on plate appearances. To eliminate ongoing speculation, the club might attempt to strike a deal before August.

Ripken said Friday night he "absolutely" wants to play again and still feels a "passion" for the game. But he can't offer guarantees. He has described his Opening Day pain as more acute than anything he persevered through two years ago when sitting between innings was not an option and he had to hoist himself from his vehicle.

Last Sunday's sensation was just as painful as on April 5. Two cortisone shots later, the same pain lingers with its root still unclear. He spoke in a gray business suit and did not dress for Friday's game. Four months shy of 39, Ripken sounded and moved as someone just back from a forced march. Only hollow optimism suggests his return before mid-May.

"You identify what you're dealing with and you choose a course of action that's appropriate and right," said Ripken, adding, "I need to do something to get well. What exactly that is I don't know yet."

Upon reporting to Fort Lauderdale Stadium two months ago, Ripken insisted he would allow this season to determine whether he played in 2000.

So far, every indication has screamed against it.

A cruel combination of personal, performance and health issues have conspired against Ripken. He insists his physical condition is not related to the death of his father, Cal Sr., last month. Prodded to answer questions about a most personal situation, he said, "It's been a hard time mentally and a hard time physically. Who wouldn't expect that to be the case?"

Tempting as it might be during the Orioles' free fall and Ripken's ominous-sounding briefing Friday, to dismiss his relevance within this clubhouse -- or his chances for returning from his current condition -- would be foolish. Might it be more than coincidence that the Orioles entered the weekend winless without him in the starting lineup?

As Ripken slowly rose from a sofa Friday, he could not say when he would be back. He sounded impatient, even angry. At the pain. At those who would offer an uninformed prognosis. At his situation.

Perhaps most of all, because he had to confess, "I don't know."

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