Each game for Cal Ripken does more than bring him closer to the inevitable finish. It tests his concentration, challenges him to keep every emotion in check until he escapes the clutches of adoring fans long enough to find a private moment.
Warming up before the fourth inning last night, Ripken sneaks a few glances at the video screen that runs images of his childhood like a home movie. His late father's face appears, and Ripken locks eyes with him until stooping for another ground ball.
It happens again before the moving tribute is complete and Ripken pounds a fist in his glove and readies for the next pitch from Orioles rookie Sean Douglass. He also must try to end a slump that kept him without a hit in the past six games. It's like trying to play baseball at its highest level while crossing four lanes of traffic.
Returning to an older stance, with his knees more bent and hands held low, Ripken made better contact but went 0-for-4 in the Orioles' 4-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays before 29,390 at Camden Yards. He twice ripped line drives that were caught, one ball directed toward center field, where the No. 8 has been mowed into the grass, another getting too close to diving third baseman Felipe Lopez, who began a double play.
With all eyes on the retiring legend, it took the club's youngest player to begin the winning rally in the ninth inning. Tim Raines Jr., making his first major-league start, led off with a double to right field. Brian Roberts laid down a sacrifice bunt and Jeff Conine and Chris Richard were walked intentionally. Tony Batista struck out, but left-hander Pedro Borbon walked Brady Anderson on a full count to force in the winning run.
"It's been a struggle but I feel comfortable up there," said Anderson, who also singled and had a run-scoring double to leave his average at .201.
Raines, 22, made his first appearance as a defensive replacement in Monday's game while his parents watched from the stands. His father rejoined the Montreal Expos last night.
"I went over to the bulletin board and saw my name in center field and my heart dropped," he said. "I just kind of went, `Whoa.' My goal this year was just to get to Double-A. To get to the big leagues speaks for itself."
Batting seventh for the first time in 11 weeks, Ripken couldn't stop a skid that's reached 0-for-29, including the last half of a Sept. 25 game in Boston. It matches a career-worst period in April 1988. Each failed at-bat last night produced another ovation. Catching a pop-up near the Blue Jays' dugout almost brought down the house.
"I think the emotions that have to be going through his mind, probably for the last 10 days, as we get closer they have to be getting more intense," manager Mike Hargrove said. "And I think Cal's a little tired. It's been a long, grueling year for all of us, maybe even more so for him because of the significance of what's going on. But Cal's surprised a lot of people for a lot of years, and under tougher circumstances."
Hargrove said he's had "two or three passing conversations" with Ripken concerning the third baseman's role in the remaining five games. Nothing "in-depth."
"I told him if he wants to play, then he will play. But beyond that, we really haven't discussed it a lot," Hargrove said, adding that Ripken hasn't indicated he wants out of the lineup for a night.
The infield remains the only landing point for Ripken besides the bench, with the designated hitter slot occupied by Richard, who can't throw because of a sore left shoulder. Whatever rest would be provided by serving as the DH won't be available to Ripken unless Hargrove is willing to remove Richard.
By going 2-for-3 last night, Richard is hitting .327 with 10 RBIs in the past 14 games.
"We still have to try to keep the integrity of our ballclub intact, and if I DH Cal, then Chris Richard wouldn't play," Hargrove said. "Chris is swinging the bat pretty good right now, so that causes you to pause a little bit there."
Ripken, who needs to play all remaining games but one to reach 3,000 for his career, hasn't missed a game since Sept. 3 in Oakland. Before last night, he hadn't batted lower than sixth since July 15 in Florida.
"He had a better approach tonight," Hargrove said. "He said he was feeling better at the plate coming into tonight."
Wherever he begins tonight's game, the same intense scrutiny and outpouring of affection will follow. Ripken can't step out of the dugout without creating a buzz through the stands. A wiping of his brow could jump-start another video tribute.
"I don't know that I've ever seen anything to this degree, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all," Hargrove said. "One of the first things that I noticed when I got here last year and going around the country is how big Cal is everywhere. I've played with and managed a lot of great players, Hall of Fame players, and I've never seen the adulation that Cal receives. It really is incredible, and there's nothing phony about it."
Ripken scorched another ball in the sixth inning last night that hooked foul, then was robbed by Lopez with the Orioles behind 3-2. Jose Cruz accounted for all three runs off Douglass by homering for the fourth consecutive game and hitting a tie-breaking double.
The Orioles loaded the bases in the seventh against rookie Brandon Lyon, who had beaten them twice this season, and reliever Bob File. The tying run scored when left-hander Scott Eyre hit Richard on the shoulder.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Pascual Coco (1-0, 3.60) vs. Orioles' Jason Johnson (10-12, 4.01)