Ripken reinvigorated, but resigned to surgery

Inside the Orioles

Third baseman calls past several weeks `blessing in disguise'

May 16, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Surrounded in The Ballpark's visitors dugout Thursday, Cal Ripken could see the end of his career. More importantly, he also could envision himself playing the rest of this season.

For the first time since his lower back grabbed him on Opening Day, refusing to let go, Ripken returned to the Orioles last week willing to elaborate on the alternatives for solving a condition that has caused him frequent numbness in his leg, stifling pain in his back and uncertainty about his future. Reluctant to discuss surgery two weeks before, Ripken now acknowledges its looming presence.

Ripken fought the idea in 1997 after struggling with a herniated disk for much of the season, eventually opting for an aggressive exercise program designed to enhance "trunk stabilization." Whenever asked about the possibility of surgery, Ripken deflected it. However, when he rejoined the Orioles on Thursday evening for this weekend's series against Texas, Ripken not only appeared reinvigorated by his return to the lineup but also resigned to the eventuality of surgery on his back.

"I need to go out there and find out. It [the injury] does cast some uncertainty on my future. That is a consideration," he said.

Ripken, who'll turn 39 in August, now calls surgery "inevitable." Years of relentless pounding have caused a flattening of the bone that narrows the spinal cord -- a condition called stenosis.

The Orioles initially classified Ripken's malady as "nerve irritation," the symptom rather than the cause. A bone spur has invaded the bed in which a nerve rests in Ripken's lower back. For now, anti-inflammatory medicine has arrested the pain and a graduating exercise regimen is intended to further support the area, lowering stress. Ripken can take the anti-inflammatories for a specified length of time.

Doctors had presented surgery option the past several weeks. Its purpose would be to remove the pain from his lower back, but it also would end Ripken's season.

Unsaid, it likely would have meant the end of his career.

"I had to consider the ramifications of coming back too soon. It was surgery or be patient. The patience was the hardest thing to do," he said.

Ripken chafes at outside evaluations based on "speculation." He resented the critical comments made about his play in 1997 while he persevered through the pain of a herniated disk. Likewise Ripken does not weigh the opinions of those who dismiss him based on nothing more than eight painful games in which he batted .179 with as many errors as hits. Ripken insists "a fairer judgment would be after you've actually had some time to go out and play."

Of course, everything becomes exaggerated when it involves Ripken -- for example, the ends to which the club attempted to conceal his departure last Sunday from Detroit for a three-day rehab in Sarasota, Fla. For several years a speculative competition has blossomed about when Ripken would end his record consecutive-games streak, when he would become a part-time player and, ultimately, when he would retire. Ripken wearied of such questions, protecting himself with answers that sounded well-rehearsed.

The past several weeks, which Ripken has called "a blessing in disguise," allowed him not only his first significant break from playing in 18 years, but also time to collect himself.

Before he left for rehab in Florida, Ripken preferred not to discuss the "R-word." There, he acknowledged where he stands.

"If [coming back] proves that I can't do it, then retirement is an inevitable step. It's an inevitable step for everyone," he said.

Many within the game wondered how Ripken would accept the inevitable close to his career. Would he grouse over diminished playing time and sulk over how it was chronicled? Would he leave feeling slighted if he is unable to reach 3,000 hits or 400 home runs? Ripken began to provide a glimpse this week when he seemed genuinely affected by his chance to play again.

"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," he said.

Ripken handled 2,131 with elegance and class, allowing the game to savor the milestone while attempting to maintain the dignity of a difficult 1995 season. Much the same occurred last Sept. 20 when the Iron Man chose the season's final home game to remove himself from the lineup, turning a final page of a lost season into a "celebration" of something remarkable. How much better it was than stepping aside because of injury or personal loss.

"I'm comfortable with how things have progressed," said Ripken, again able to handle a situation on his own terms.

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