Back may force Ripken to cross finish line gingerly

`Scared,' he discusses DH role after 12-6 loss

September 06, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - Diligent, prepared, even stubborn, Cal Ripken long symbolized what was best about his franchise. Yesterday, as Ripken walked through the visitors' clubhouse at Network Associates Coliseum, his right shoulder and lower back wrapped and his walk careful, he again represented the metaphor for his team, an achy bunch three weeks away from relief that only a season's end can provide.

The Orioles yesterday suffered their latest indignity, a 12-6 loss against the Oakland Athletics. The margin of defeat masked the lopsided nature of a game that saw them trail by nine runs before scavenging for four late runs.

The A's pounded starting pitcher Calvin Maduro (3-5) and three relievers for 14 hits, including three home runs, while exploiting every defensive misplay and every misplaced pitch.

Losers of 11 of their past 12, the Orioles (55-84) suffered their second sweep in eight days against the presumptive American League wild card. They may have also lost their 41-year-old clubhouse icon as a two-way player.

No longer searing pitches as he did for the first two months after announcing his plans to retire, Ripken acknowledged after yesterday's loss that his lower back is sending many of the same signals that preceded last season's extended stay on the disabled list. Given Monday off, Ripken made his fifth consecutive start as designated hitter. He went 0-for-4 and stood or leaned for much of the game.

Afterward, he admitted being "more scared than concerned" by back pain and stiffness and hinted at an upcoming discussion with manager Mike Hargrove about his role in the Orioles' remaining 23 games.

"I'd like to play every time we go out there. Common sense might dictate another path," Ripken said. "I'd like to get to the end. I don't want to blow out. I want to be healthy and good at the end."

Ripken promised during spring training that he wouldn't attempt to will himself through discomfort like last season, when his back seized during a swing at Fenway Park and forced him to the disabled list on June 28. He didn't return until Sept. 1. Lesson learned.

"It's a scary thing for me. I've felt this feeling before, and if you're not careful with it and you continue to push it, it turns into something where it could possibly blow. That's what ended up happening in Boston, but it was after a longer time pushing it," he said.

Within a unsightly meltdown in which the Orioles have lost 37 of 52 games since the All-Star break, Ripken's farewell tour has ranked among the few uplifting moments. But after playing 26 of his team's past 30 games, Ripken's outings at third base will likely decrease.

"I might talk to Grover about that," Ripken said. "I'd like to get back out in the field and see how it feels. But [designated hitter] might be the mechanism to allow me to play a little more and not put myself at risk with dives. The real concern in these movements is when I hit the ground."

Having twice stumbled and fallen in the past week while leaving the batter's box, Ripken wants nothing more than to be a productive, active player through Sept. 30, the final day of his all-but-certain Hall of Fame career. To do so may require concessions.

Ripken remembers the unsettling sensation that shot through his body when he dove after a line drive Thursday at Camden Yards. His lower back has refused to let him forget.

The Orioles can't shake a feeling of helplessness. They have been outscored 72-21 during their 12-game free fall. Yesterday's 12 hits raised their batting average to .182 in that span.

"You always expect more than you get. I do," conceded Hargrove, who has maintained his composure during a skid of historic proportions. "Our expectations and demands are high. It hasn't surprised me that some of our kids have struggled. It's surprised me that we've had some of our veterans struggle. I think with the injuries we've had to the veteran players we were relying on to take some pressure off our kids, it's had a tremendous effect on what's happened since the All-Star break."

The loss of shortstop Mike Bordick, Opening Day pitcher Pat Hentgen and first baseman David Segui pre-date Ripken's problems. The result is a badly exposed and inexperienced roster.

"We're playing hard. You could sit here and yell and scream all you want. But if you're playing hard, that's the main ingredient," Hargrove said. "When we gain experience, we'll play smarter. But you've got to go through some ugly, tough times - which we are - to get where we want to be. If it was easy, anybody could do it. But it's a tough road. You've got to stay mentally tough and committed. There are no shortcuts."

September is supposed to be about discoveries. Center fielder Willie Harris provided a feel-good moment when the former 24th-round draftee laced a third-inning single for his first major-league hit. A nonroster player until last week, he forgot to round first base in his excitement but remembered being congratulated by a future Hall of Famer, Eddie Murray.

"A lot of this has been a surprise," said Harris, who did not anticipate a September call-up after a solid season at Double-A Bowie. "The whole thing is very exciting to me. ... Standing there, I thought about my mom and my daughter, wondering if they knew."

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