No backing into season for Ripken

Readiness is the key as O's third baseman returns from surgery

Spring season of firsts

Agility drills form core of his program

March 22, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The agility course is 15 feet square and defined on a back field by four red cones. This is where Cal Ripken and his lower back have come to terms.

"More so than any other spring, this is about readiness," said Ripken, attending his 22nd spring training but his first after undergoing season-ending back surgery.

The agility drill calls for Ripken to sprint 15 feet forward, shuffle 15 feet to his left without crossing his legs, run backward for 15 feet, then shuffle 15 feet to his right.

Ripken does this six times with strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop holding a stopwatch. On Feb. 27 -- the first day he attempted it -- Ripken's times were 6.01, 5.82, 5.80, 5.62, 5.59 and 5.52 seconds. On March 18, he had improved to 5.49, 5.39, 5.32, 5.26, 5.26 and 5.17 seconds. His quickest is 5.13 seconds, nearly a full second better than his slowest try the first day.

Bishop then fastens an elastic cord around the hamstring and calf of Ripken's left leg, the one weakened by more than two years of off-and-on back pain stemming from stenosis.

With Bishop tugging firmly against him, Ripken runs a series of 20-yard bursts. Form is more important than time as Ripken is supposed to lift his left leg rather than let it drag. Earlier this spring, the leg was slow to respond. Now it lifts almost as high as the right one despite Bishop's resistance.

"His power has increased. His lower-body strength has improved. His legs are moving higher. He doesn't appear to have any aches or stiffness," Bishop said.

Ripken refers to his agility drills with Bishop as "the most functionally important thing I do." Two springs ago, Ripken used the players' parking lot to heave medicine balls as a trunk stabilization exercise. This time he is using the back field to regain full use of a slightly shorter left leg.

"The best thing you can say is things are returning to normal. But it's not a normal spring for me," Ripken said. "I'm worrying about it -- not in a bad sense -- but I've gone through surgery. When I do certain things, maybe you hold back a little bit because you are cautious. You don't want to do anything that sets you back. You want to be as ready as you can be Opening Day. You run through certain tests. This is a spring training of tests. Little things mean more than they used to."

A late slide to break up a double play, a lunge to his glove side, a hard swing at a breaking pitch. Each represents another mark on Ripken's mental "checklist."

Still, some camp observers perceive Ripken as stiff and a bit reluctant to cut loose on throws. He has taken two bases on a hit just twice this spring. It was that move last September in Arlington, Texas, that threw his back into spasms and caused him to seek surgery in Cleveland. Ripken concedes the stiffness but without worry.

"I'm still walking on eggshells. Maybe I'm being cautious," he said. "Maybe subconsciously I'm thinking the healing isn't done."

A six-month rehabilitation was prescribed after Sept. 23 surgery. Tomorrow marks the anniversary that Ripken has looked forward to since Dr. Henry Bohlman carved an 8-inch incision slightly below waist-high in the Iron Man's back.

"There are certain days it feels stiff and doesn't work right," Ripken said. "The last couple days it's started to feel better. It's not that the back has gotten in the way. It's the nature of surgery that when you're coming back it takes awhile to get over the hump. Mentally, I guess I've been fixed on the six-month period."

Ripken pauses to think about the mind games he has played with himself. "What's a couple more days going to do? Maybe mentally and magically you say, `I'm not at risk anymore.' "

Manager Mike Hargrove and Ripken have spoken many times this spring but only infrequently about his physical condition. Early in camp Ripken inquired about the manager's plan for using him early and on March 10 notified Hargrove of a strained trapezius muscle that kept him out of that day's game.

"Seeing Cal on a day-to-day basis has been a real pleasant surprise for me," said Hargrove. "I hesitate to use the word `passion' because it's so overused. But Cal has such an enthusiasm for what he does. I think a lot of younger players could learn from it."

Compared with last March, Ripken will accept this. Now there is only rehabilitation compared to last spring when he confronted the excruciating combination of his father's death and his own physical ailments.

"I feel years ahead of where I was last spring," Ripken said. "Physically and mentally, I had a little more going on. Last year, I couldn't get comfortable in the box. I felt like I was swinging hard. I was getting jammed. It looked ugly. It felt ugly."

Ripken said the sensation is better now and the results are on the way. Having appeared in 12 of 17 exhibition games, Ripken has hit only .182 with one extra-base hit, three RBIs and no runs scored. Yesterday he suffered his first strikeout of camp while also grounding to third and flying to left. Numbers aren't a March concern.

"Everybody wants results and would like to leave here having torn up the Grapefruit League. But you still start the season at ground zero. This doesn't count one bit," Ripken said.

"You want to know you can make the reaction play. You know you stayed on the slider and you took a tough two-strike pitch. You catch one ball, get up and throw a guy out. You receive reassurance that you got up from a dive and it didn't hurt that much. All those are little things I used to take for granted. Now, in the back of your mind you don't know how you're going to react to that."

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