FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Cal Ripken took another step yesterday toward validating a full recovery from September back surgery. It went off without a hitch or a twinge.
Playing for the first time since having his season end prematurely, Ripken lasted four pain-free innings in the Orioles' first intrasquad game. He was robbed of a hit in his only at-bat, with shortstop Mike Bordick making a diving stop up the middle. He was mostly idle in the field, and mainly encouraged by how he felt in a game that ended in a 1-1 tie.
"Intrasquad games have always been kind of fun," Ripken said. "It feels weird standing in the box for real after a long winter. This year, with the back surgery, I thought it might feel a little different. I found out very quickly it feels the same. Standing out there in the field, hitting in the box, it felt really normal."
This was Ripken's first taste of live pitching since having surgery on Sept. 23 to relieve nerve irritation in his lower back. He hadn't been restricted in workouts since arriving in Fort Lauderdale, but admitted yesterday that he still feels the residual effects of the procedure in his left leg. Nothing of concern, however. Just the occasional reminders.
"I feel that I still have some functional weakness in my left leg that I'm addressing," he said. "If I tested it out strength-wise, it would probably be very close to the right, but in the functional aspects of moving out of the box and running and moving to your left and right, it's just a matter of time and repetition.
"I think spring training will be very good for that. By the end of spring training I should feel stronger in my left leg."
There are other reasons for Ripken to count down the days that distance him from the surgery. There's still the "mental hump" that must be climbed.
"I look at the six-month period after surgery. I was told your body takes up to six months to heal. Some of those areas deep inside are the slowest to heal. By the middle of March, in my mind, I should be repaired and shouldn't have any worries," he said.
"Each time you go out there and each time you work out and wake up the next day feeling pretty good about it, that's one more step toward being totally confident and forgetting about it. I'm looking forward to the time when you can't remember having surgery, when you don't have a reminder in some way. I'm hopeful that will happen during spring training."
Ripken also said he's pretty relaxed at the plate as he tries to find the comfort zone that enabled him to hit .340 in 86 games last season.
"Batting practice, the cage, there's that certain feeling that I had last year," he said.
The Orioles have two more intrasquad games, today and tomorrow, before Friday's exhibition opener against the Cincinnati Reds.
And they're off ...
The Orioles' first intrasquad game didn't feature any fireworks, but manager Mike Hargrove seemed pleased with the way the club looked in its first actual competitive situation.
"The first intrasquad game of the year, you're just looking for people to get their feet on the ground and see the ball at game speed," he said. "I thought some guys swung the bat pretty well for the first day."
Designated hitter Harold Baines, who could hit in his sleep, drove in the first run of the game with a base hit. Bordick and Jerry Hairston made great defensive plays. Sidney Ponson and B. J. Ryan threw the ball well. No one got hurt.
Making the effort
Bordick's spectacular diving play to rob Ripken of a hit left Hargrove looking for superlatives, but he settled for a statement on the heart of some of the veteran players in the Orioles' lineup.
The veteran shortstop has nothing to prove, but he still gave a 100 percent effort -- and risked injury -- to make a major-league play in an intrasquad game.
"I think that supports what I've been saying all along," Hargrove said. "People talk about this being an old team -- and it is a veteran team -- but these guys still have a competitive edge."