Ripken puts in first half-day as DH

Back, demands of road lead to "precautions'


May 10, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO - Cal Ripken made more history last night. All he had to do was walk into the clubhouse and glance at the lineup card.

Striking a compromise among his cranky lower back, SkyDome's harsh artificial surface and his desire to remain in the lineup, Ripken served as designated hitter for the first time in2,818 games. Manager Mike Hargrove made the move after discussing it with Ripken following Monday's night's game, which included Ripken making a second sprawling defensive play in as many days.

"It's turf; he's coming off back surgery; he's playing DH," Hargrove said matter-of-factly several hours before last night's 6-4 loss. "It's not a total day off."

Ripken cited "the demands of the schedule, the demands of travel, the demands of the intensity of the game" as contributing to some slight recent stiffness. He has started 28 of 32 games and is hitting .243 with six home runs and 22 RBIs, including two last night. His RBIs are third most on the team.

Hargrove's move was unprecedented but not unanticipated. He had approached Ripken about serving as DH during last month's road series in Minnesota but the plan was scrubbed when first baseman Will Clark suffered back spasms behind his right shoulder. Ripken's backup, Jeff Conine, instead played in place of Clark. It was during that series that Ripken reached 3,000 career hits. Yesterday's move apparently came at Ripken's suggestion.

Ripken's surgically repaired back has had to endure an arduous early road schedule that forced the Orioles out of the Eastern time zone for all of April. "Some years, the travel's worse than others," said Ripken. "This year, it hasn't been real good so far."

Ripken said last September's surgery has restored him "to a point" but added, "I think expectations that you are brand new after surgery isn't true with anybody. It takes awhile to get over things. You take some precautions. I'd like to play more than 86 games this year. So if it means a day off here and there and trying to DH to see if that helps, I'll do that to play a whole season."

Throughout his record streak of2,632 consecutive games, Ripken never maintained the run by entering as a substitute or serving as designated hitter. Such devices were considered artificial means of extending something he looked upon with pride.

Ripken's streak endedSept. 20, 1998. He has since undergone back surgery and endured two lengthy stays on the disabled list. `This," he said, "is a whole new set of circumstances."

Coincidentally, it was during the Orioles' first trip to Toronto last season that back pain forced Ripken to leave the club and go on the DL for the first time.

Ripken's current condition is vastly improved. Then, he was trying to hold off surgery despite having difficulty sleeping or merely rising from a sitting position. He missed 22 games after going on the disabled list April 20, then returned for a second time Aug. 3. In between absences, he compiled a career-high.340 average, 18 home runs and 57 RBIs in his 86 games. A recurrence of lower back pain forced him to leave the team in Texas last Sept. 22 and undergo back surgery the following day.

Regular off days were projected for Ripken this season, especially on artificial turf and on day games following night games. "You deal with it," Ripken said. "You accept it for what it is. It's an off day to help for the big picture, not the small picture. DH is kind of the same thing."

Last night's unique lineup card included Mark Lewis at third base while Ryan Minor, who replaced Ripken the night the streak died, continued to wait for his first plate appearance this season.

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