Ripken slowly gets into swing

Facing `live' pitching will test injured rib

March 20, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A visitor stopped by Cal Ripken's locker one day last weekend to ask the predictable: When would the Orioles' third baseman see live pitching?

"I guess that depends on how you define live," quipped Ripken.

Well, how about someone with a live arm?

So far this spring, Ripken has taken swings off the left arm of hitting coach Terry Crowley. The King of Swing has typically fed Ripken balls seated behind a cage no more than 30 feet away. Crowley tosses overhand, but the intent isn't to bust his pupil inside or feed him a dipping split-finger pitch.

"I don't know," Ripken added. "Crow's got pretty good stuff."

The two will not accompany the Orioles to today's exhibition game in Vero Beach against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Instead, Crowley again will feed Ripken.

An additional twist may come afterward when, weather permitting, Ripken faces a "live" arm from 60 feet, 6 inches.

Ripken says he hasn't swung a bat with more than 75 percent effort this spring because of the fractured rib he sustained in mid-February at his Reistertown home. Originally scheduled to return within two to four weeks, Ripken has exercised caution. He began participating in fielding drills last Friday and now must cram an entire spring's worth of at-bats into the final 10 days of camp.

The Orioles haven't publicly addressed the possibility of starting the season without Ripken at third base. Meanwhile, rookie Mike Kinkade appears to have galvanized a roster spot while receiving much time at Ripken's station.

Though the ribs have slowed Ripken's physical preparation, they have also inhibited his assumption of a more obvious role of mentor to a team that may break camp with as many as eight rookies.

This is Ripken's third consecutive incomplete spring. He endured a difficult camp in 1999 marred by the death of his father, Cal Sr., and eased into last February's return from lower back surgery. Though Ripken has been present this spring since position players reported, he has remained noticeably cautious with his 40-year-old body.

"At this point, there's no reason to push something too quickly and have a major setback," manager Mike Hargrove said last week. "I think Cal's close. Knowing Cal, there's no reason to believe he won't be ready Opening Day."

For the first time in his career, Ripken will also be his team's oldest player on Opening Day. He is projected as the No. 6 hitter, its third baseman for at least 120 games if healthy and an obvious presence within a clubhouse that has become younger and more impressionable since last summer's breakup.

Ripken suggested last summer that his return in 2001 would permit him to influence younger players, something he has traditionally done mostly by example but might include a more vocal presence this season. That, too, has been placed on hold by his injury.

"I've always been someone who people have sought out for instructional advice or even experience. There is a component of a rebuilding process I like. In a rebuilding process you can go 0-21, lose 100 games and, from a competitive side, take a beating. That happened in '88 and we overachieved in '89," Ripken recalled of the club's record-worst start to the 1988 season followed by the magic of the 1989 "Why Not?" edition. "The part that I like is that this time around I hear there's a commitment to developing from within. Trying to get the minor-league system to the model it was years ago. There's something nice about players that are working hard in the minor leagues having the optimism that they can make it to the big-league team instead of hoping to be traded somewhere else."

Having watched his father shape a generation of players, Ripken will have an opportunity to make impressions from a different vantage point.

"I like helping everybody. But I'm not an official coach so I can't operate in that capacity and run things. They have their jobs to do and do them very well. If there are moments when I can create a relationship with a player or add something, I'll take that opportunity," Ripken said.

For now, taking care of Ripken, the Player, is more important than becoming Ripken, the Coach. Having watched from outside the lines for much of camp, building relationships has been put on hold. There also is protocol that Ripken recognizes.

"There's a fine line. Do I have a coach's qualifications? Probably. But I'm not one. So you have to allow a coach to do his job," said Ripken. "I don't think you can just walk up to somebody and throw something at them. Sometimes it takes time. Trust and credibility are issues."

First things first. Ripken hopes to begin a faster pace today that will prepare him for Opening Day, only 13 days away. He will need to be part of the lineup by this weekend in order to get the 25-30 at-bats he needs to become comfortable before facing Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox on April 2. "There really hasn't been a reason to rush it. I understood it would be a gradual process and have tried to keep seeing it in that light," said Ripken.

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