Pain again drives Ripken from field

will he return?

Nagging back places Oriole at crossroads

June 29, 2000|By Joe Strauss and Roch Kubatko | Joe Strauss and Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - The Orioles placed third baseman Cal Ripken on the 15-day disabled list yesterday for the third time in two seasons because of nerve inflammation in his lower back, assuring that the future Hall of Famer's string of All-Star Game appearances will be broken next month and intensifying questions about how much longer the Iron Man can persevere through constant pain that doubled him over Tuesday night.

Ripken traveled from Boston to Cleveland yesterday and underwent a magnetic resonance imaging performed by Cleveland Clinic orthopedic specialist Dr. Henry Bohlman. Results were not disclosed, but club officials believe that Ripken, 39, will suffer a prolonged absence.

Bothered by nerve inflammation long before Tuesday night, Ripken experienced his worst pain of the season while running out a ground ball. After nearly collapsing, he left the game, leaving club officials and fans alike to wonder if the injury would abbreviate his season or end his 19-year major-league career.

"The only person who knows what he's going through is him," said Orioles first baseman Will Clark. "He's laboring a little bit more, but he said he was fine to play. That's part of playing up here. Sometimes you have to play with pain. Now he's on the DL because he's in unbearable pain.

"There's always a place you have to draw the line."

Ripken reached his threshold during Tuesday night's five-run 10th inning when he drove a ground ball to third base. Hurting from his at-bat three innings before, he could barely pull himself down the baseline, doubling over after he hit the bag.

Head trainer Richie Bancells rushed to Ripken and assisted him from the field. Never before during Ripken's four years of back problems has he needed assistance.

"It's been tough to watch," said vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "He's clearly been hurting before this. But he's such a hardened warrior that he was not going to give in to it. This tells you how much he's been enduring."

The back condition twice forced Ripken to the disabled last season before he underwent surgery Sept. 23 to alleviate stenosis, a narrowing of a nerve canal.

Ripken, who was not available for comment yesterday, has consistently stiff-armed questions about his future, saying that decision will come after this season. Thrift said the club has yet to approach Ripken about his plans, though he is a pending free agent and the organization lacks an obvious replacement.

"We haven't gotten there yet," Thrift said.

"That's not a question I can answer; it's not a question you can answer," said Clark. "There's only one person who can answer that, and he's in Cleveland."

The Orioles reflexively closed ranks regarding Ripken's latest flare-up. Reporters' requests to speak with Bancells were denied, and all questions were referred to manager Mike Hargrove, who offered little pending the results of Ripken's examination.

"Last night was the first time it bothered him when he was swinging," said Hargrove, who referred to pitches low and inside as especially troublesome.

Asked about Ripken's future, Hargrove said, "Anything I say now is a straw grabbed out of midair."

Yesterday morning, officials insisted they had no idea about the extent of Ripken's injury even as they placed him on the disabled list before his examination in Cleveland. Ripken's required 15-day stay on the DL would last past the July 11 All-Star Game in Atlanta. Ripken, a 17-time All-Star, the last 16 as a starter, currently leads all American League third basemen in votes.

But Major League Baseball rules state that a player on the disabled list cannot play in the All-Star Game, although he may participate in the ceremonies. If Ripken is voted in as a starter it would mark a record 16 straight seasons he was voted in by fans, breaking a tie with Rod Carew.

The organizational reaction contrasts with Ripken's recent frankness about his discomfort. The third baseman, who rarely would discuss any condition concerns during his record-setting 2,632 consecutive-game streak that ended without injury on Sept. 20, 1998, said the inflammation flared anew during the recent series in Oakland and continued to grab at him in Seattle.

"I have freedom of movement even though I have a little instability and a lot of pain down my left leg," Ripken said before Sunday's game.

There are times, Ripken acknowledged, when he hurries from the field to the trainer's room after a game "to put out the fire" in the leg, he said then.

Since receiving a cortisone injection adminstered by Bohlman on May 15, Ripken had modified an extensive pre-game preparation to accommodate lingering pain. A routine once spread over several hours has been condensed into about 45 minutes in an effort to extend Ripken's window of flexibility.

Ripken came out of a game early last Wednesday, was used as designated hitter for only the fourth time in his career the next day and then received Friday night off. Able to swing a bat without discomfort, running had become a chore.

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