Ripken won't count himself out as O's seek 2002 third baseman

Encouraged by hit streak, vet would `like to see how it goes' before decision


May 16, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Despite an organizational search for his successor, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken says he still intends to let his performance this season determine whether he extends his career to 2002.

"I'd like to be able to decide at the appropriate time," Ripken said. "Absent that information - that day-to-day data - I can't make that decision. I don't know, maybe other people can. But I can't."

Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said last weekend that the club is "absolutely looking" for a third baseman who could serve as Ripken's successor. Though insisting that no move is imminent, Thrift added an organizational shortage at the position represents "a particular need."

While the Orioles have immersed themselves in a system-wide rebuilding effort that does not see Ripken as part of its future success, Ripken still sees himself as a productive player able to contribute to an otherwise struggling offense. While much attention has been paid to his atrophied numbers, Ripken cites his early return from a fractured rib as a relevant consideration.

"Due to my training, I broke a rib," he said. "I had a setback and rushed back as soon as I could even to my own detriment. I'm not worried about that. I've gone out there to play. I'd like to see how it goes."

Three months shy of his 41st birthday, Ripken began last night hitting .215 but riding a seven-game hitting streak. He described his outlook as similar to last season's, when he returned Sept. 1 from more than two months on the disabled list to bat .307 with two home runs and 13 RBIs for the final month of the season.

"I can't tell you what [my plans] are because that's what playing is all about," Ripken said before sitting out last night's series opener against the Detroit Tigers. "When you play through it, that's when you determine whether you can. Last September I couldn't tell you whether I could do it. I had to go out and perform. Then I could say, `I'll give it a try next year.' "

Ripken says he hasn't made a decision abour retirement or playing a 22nd season and seemed irritated others could have decided upon next year's course without a more extensive read.

"If I hit 20 home runs and drove in 100 runs, would someone have a decision to make? The possibility exists I could have a really good year, not a really good year or fall somewhere in between. In order to make an evaluation of that, you have to actually go through it."

The Orioles appear to be sending signals that their roster turnover will involve Ripken next season. Certainly, there is no desire to bring him back at a guaranteed $6.3 million salary, which ranked Ripken as the team's highest-paid active player before David Segui's return from the DL yesterday.

An executive from a rival club confirmed being told by Thrift of the Orioles' interest in a third baseman but said specific players had not yet been discussed. The Orioles have interest in the Montreal Expos' Fernando Tatis, the San Diego Padres' Phil Nevin and the Texas Rangers' Mike Lamb, among others, according to club sources. All three players fit Thrift's profile of a younger, ascending player. Ripken said he has been told nothing by the organization beyond what he learned in an April 21 meeting in St. Petersburg, Fla., with manager Mike Hargrove.

"My understanding of the meeting was they want to look at some people, give them some more at-bats, and my playing time would be a little bit less," he said.

Though neither the team nor Ripken classifies the arrangement as a challenge to the future Hall of Famer - Hargrove said the move was not performance-related - Ripken has since shaken himself from an early slump. Ripken briefly led the team in RBIs and was tied with Chris Richard for fifth with 13 RBIs before last night.

"I've gotten two hits against the likes of [Mike] Mussina and [Andy] Pettitte, who are considered among the top flight of pitchers," Ripken said. "It's part of the consideration. Are 50 at-bats a test? Are 100 at-bats a test? ... You work hard and push yourself to be ready. Right now, I feel as good as I have at any time in the last two years. But it's hard to judge myself now."

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