Refreshed, Ripken is raring to go

May 14, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

ARLINGTON, Texas -- For the longest time, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that going on the disabled list might be the best thing that could happen to Cal Ripken. But just this once, that might have been the case.

You wouldn't wish a back injury on anyone, but Ripken said last night that the time off gave him a physical and emotional break, a chance to gather himself following the death of his father, a fresh perspective on the game.

"The injury was a blessing in disguise," Ripken said. "I don't know if there's any timetable on the healing process mentally. But time is needed when you lose a loved one, lose someone as close to you as my dad was to me. I feel better, more clear-headed this time around than I did at the start of the season."

Before the game, Ripken called last night his "second Opening Day." Orioles manager Ray Miller said he was bouncing around "like a little kid." Ripken's former manager, Texas' Johnny Oates, described him as "anxious to get back on the field."

Not surprisingly, the results were mixed. Playing for the first time in nearly a month, Ripken went 1-for-4 with an RBI single in the Orioles' 15-7 loss to Texas, and made one of the team's five errors when a sharp one-hopper by Todd Zeile went between his legs at third base.

"I'm very excitable today," Ripken said beforehand. "I compare it to the first day of spring training when you haven't seen the guys all winter. I was kind of acting goofy, running around with a whole bunch more energy than you normally have.

"When you're away from it, you tend to appreciate things that you take for granted. The thing I took for granted was my ability to go out and play all the time. Now, having had to take time off, I certainly appreciate how lucky I was, how much I do enjoy going out there and playing."

Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. John Elway. Everyone keeps asking Ripken if he will be the next legend to retire, but the more relevant comparison might be to the relationships each of those athletes has or had with his father.

Gretzky is extremely close to his father, Walter. Elway is extremely close to his father, Jack. And Jordan was so devastated by the death of his father, James, he temporarily retired from basketball.

Ripken's father, Cal Ripken Sr., died on March 25, just 10 days before the start of the Orioles' season. Ripken missed seven spring-training games due to his illness and passing. And then he had to rush back to the business of reviving his career.

That alone was a lot to ask, and then Ripken suffered his first disabling injury in 19 major-league seasons. The cumulative burden seemed almost too much to bear, even for a player known as the Iron Man.

Ripken needed time to heal. He needed time to grieve. And still, he couldn't just determine his own timetable. Anxious to return to the Orioles' lineup, he spent a mere 24 days on the disabled list.

Jordan played an entire season of minor-league baseball, enduring the ultimate back-to-basics experience, before rejoining the Chicago Bulls. Ripken played two controlled games at extended spring training in Sarasota, Fla., competing against players half his age, before rejoining the Orioles.

"Too bad you can't take everyone about every five years and send them to A-ball for two weeks, have them travel with the team, then come back," Miller mused. "There would be a lot less complaining."

Miller wasn't referring to Ripken specifically, just major-leaguers in general. Quite frankly, Ripken no longer has time for sabbaticals. Barely a year ago, he grew defensive when asked about his consecutive-games streak. Now, he freely acknowledges that he might be nearing the final days of his career.

"Because of the injury, it does cast some uncertainty on my future," Ripken said. "That can be a consideration. Simply, I have to go out there with a good body and good mind and see how it works out. I'll know one way or the other."

His contract stipulates that the Orioles must decide whether to exercise his $6.3 million option by the All-Star break. The two sides could always agree to defer that question until the end of the season. Right now, no one has any idea what Ripken's value will be next week, much less next year.

The Orioles might prefer to re-sign him at a lesser salary if he is going to be a part-time player. They also might prefer to move B. J. Surhoff to third base, creating an opening for Brady Anderson in left so they could sign a superior center fielder.

But first things first.

"I think it's unfair to jump to any conclusions, or immediately to retirement, after 28 at-bats, after losing your father at the end of spring training," Ripken said. "So I think a fairer judgment would be after you've actually had some time to go out and play."

He went out and played last night, so much of his world so different, and one aspect eerily the same. The philosophy that Ripken embraced in the spotlight will serve him well in the twilight. One game at a time.

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