Cal Ripken would have made Eddie Gaedel proud.
Almost as proud as his orthopedist.
Participating in a packed afternoon fan forum at yesterday's FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center, Ripken fielded a question about his myriad batting stances. A topic that has frequently irritated the Orioles third baseman throughout his career this time elicited a chuckle while bringing him out of his chair.
"I've been working on a new stance. Want to see it?"
At that, Ripken went into a convoluted crouch -- even for the Iron Man of 1,000 stances -- that included a deep knee bend with him hunched over so his elbows were no higher than his knees. "I figure anything from here to here is a strike," Ripken said, referring to about a 2-inch strike zone unseen since the debut of Gaedel, the St. Louis Browns' vertically challenged pinch hitter, in 1951.
What had been an almost reverent atmosphere made room for laughter. And maybe a less-audible sigh of relief. Exactly four months after season-ending surgery to repair his lower back, Ripken declared himself ready for spring training by contorting himself into a human pretzel.
Offstage, he made the statement minutes later by more conventional means.
"I still have two or three weeks to make gains before I get to spring training. I'd be very satisfied going to spring training right now," said Ripken, who hit .340 with 18 home runs and 57 RBIs between two trips to the disabled list that preceded his September shutdown.
On Saturday, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said Jeff Conine would be given plenty of time to acquaint himself with third base at spring training. During last month's winter meetings, manager Mike Hargrove estimated Ripken would start "four or five times" a week. But yesterday Ripken gave little ground, insisting that it's realistic to project 600-650 plate appearances for himself if healthy. Until last season he had never failed to reach the threshold over a 162-game schedule.
Ripken has turned over supervision to head trainer Richie Bancells and strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop, whose primary chore is to keep the patient from going beyond his prescribed program.
"I think in a lot of ways, with the skill stuff and the baseball stuff I'll be ahead of schedule," Ripken said, "because I'm really forced to examine those needs and practice those drills associated with that."
Ripken guessed his last doctor's visit was Nov. 3. He said he has called doctors only twice since and nothing has interrupted his progress. "I've forgotten about any timetables like that," Ripken said. "Everything revolved around whether I needed to go see him or I needed to get approval. I've gone through every kind of test and moved on to the next. I haven't felt the need to call [Dr. Henry Bohlman]."
After putting himself through a month of graduated running and trunk stabilization exercises, Ripken began baseball-specific activities Dec. 27 during a camp he organizes in Hawaii. He then traveled to his four-day fantasy camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., and received additional positive feedback from his back.
Perhaps most encouraging, residual numbness in his right leg continues to decrease, though the 19-year veteran admits certain moves that were previously automatic must become comfortable again.
Explained Ripken: "I was very surprised at how quickly I was able to swing the bat and take ground balls. But in Arizona I learned there was a little bit of weakness when I tried to perform a certain sequence of activities. You bend down -- you're OK. You catch it -- you're OK. You turn while you bend down and start to throw -- that's a functional thing that is last to come."
Ripken added he is experiencing no pain and only caution prevents him from returning to his traditional winter basketball games at his Reisterstown gym.
Seen up close by the Orioles' faithful for the first time since Bohlman performed a 90-minute operation to widen canals pressing upon nerves in the third baseman's lower back, Ripken answered questions about 400 home runs, his narrowing pursuit of 3,000 hits and his health. Only a reference to the "r-word" -- retirement -- caused the 39-year-old pause.
When one fan "speculated" that the Orioles had not placed tickets to the Oct. 1 season finale on sale because Major League Baseball was holding them back in anticipation of it being Ripken's final game, team officials scrambled to douse the rumor.
(Within minutes, Orioles broadcaster Jim Hunter relayed a message that plenty of bleacher and upper deck seats remained for the game against the New York Yankees.)
"Think I'll get that question again in spring training?" Ripken later asked.