Ripken embraces `second Opening Day'

Sidelight

Healthier physically, mentally, excited vet contributes RBI single

May 14, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Gone for 22 games, third baseman Cal Ripken returned to active duty yesterday, striding briskly through the Orioles' clubhouse, sipping coffee, exchanging barbs with center fielder Brady Anderson and at one point stopping at his locker to sniff his batting practice jersey. The pain was gone from his lower back, the enthusiasm back in his voice.

"This," he said, "does feel like the second Opening Day to me."

Before the game, the Orioles optioned first baseman Calvin Pickering to make room for the third baseman. Ripken had arrived in Arlington Wednesday afternoon after spending three days in Sarasota, Fla. He admitted to a certain "level of nervousness that I've never had before."

"When you're away from it, you appreciate what you took for granted. And what I took for granted was the ability to go out there every day and play," he said.

Ripken's debut included an RBI single in the sixth inning that followed a double-play grounder and a pop to first base. It also included a greater perspective.

"You learn something from every experience you go through in life. If you look at the small picture you see the level of frustration and some of the bad feelings about being on the disabled list and not being able to play," he said during a run of interviews inside the visitors' dugout. "If you look at the broader picture, I can certainly empathize with the frustration of being on the disabled list, seeing other players who have been hurt. I have never sat in judgment of anyone who's been on the disabled list, but now I have a full understanding."

Ripken sat out the April 18 game in Toronto with what was initially diagnosed as "nerve irritation." He underwent a series of cortisone shots and continues to take oral anti-inflammatories to ease the condition, more precisely known as stenosis.

The condition is a narrowing of the spinal canal and is believed complicated by a bone spur intruding into the diminished space.

Early on, Ripken admitted the pain was more excruciating than anything he confronted during 1997 when a herniated disk never stopped his consecutive-games streak, which he ended at 2,632 games last September.

What was then localized pain along his lower left back and left leg spread across the width of his back. In Toronto, he could barely straighten to pack his luggage. A week later he still walked with difficulty.

Medical treatment and regular exercises have allowed him to move freely. Yesterday he bounced around the clubhouse, spoke with manager Ray Miller and generally acted "goofy."

"I don't think about it when I get up. I don't think about it when I walk. I don't think about it when I sit down. I think about it when I take a plane trip," he said. "I don't want to sit in one position too long."

As well as rehabilitating his body, Ripken believes his extended absence allowed him to collect himself mentally after the most turbulent spring training of his 19-year career.

Ripken referenced the March 25 death of his father as a significant hurdle that the season never allowed him time to resolve. Accordingly, he calls retirement talk premature.

"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, so I think a fairer judgment would be after you've actually had some time to go out and play and have a sound mind and a sound body," he said.

Ripken appeared to possess both. Instead of sounding weary and depressed as he did during the time when watching a game from the dugout was too wrenching to bear, he spoke convincingly of coming to terms with a time that tested him physically, emotionally and professionally.

"Time is the best thing. Everybody benefits from time. I didn't have the benefit of time when I jumped back in to play. Maybe the injury was a blessing in disguise. It afforded me the opportunity to actually think about things and heal mentally," he said.

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