Streak preserved, Oriole is happier just to play again CAL'S BACK!


SARASOTA, Fla. -- An hour after acting commissioner Bud Selig announced that baseball would resume, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken was on the phone from Maryland, laughing at himself. See, his body had been telling him for several weeks now that it was time to get back on the field.

"There's something in the air," he said. "This may sound strange to you. . . ."

He paused.

"Remember when you were a kid," he said, "and you instinctively changed seasons with the weather? I haven't experienced spring here in a long, long time" -- since high school -- so when the weather started to break, I started to smell certain things, and it started to feel like it was baseball time. That in itself motivated me. It was time to start playing baseball."

Ripken returns to the field now, ending months of speculation about whether the strike or use of replacement players or sanctions against the Orioles would finish his feat of endurance. Having played in 2,009 straight games, he remains 121 away from Lou Gehrig's mark of 2,130.

It also appears Orioles fans won't have to fly to Oakland, Calif., for the potential record-breaking game either. The delayed start ofthe 1995 season appears to ensure that the potential tying and record-breaking games will take place at Camden Yards.

The regular season tentatively is scheduled to begin April 26, and the season will be shortened to 144 games. The Orioles are in a position to manipulate the schedule so that Ripken would tie the record Sept. 5 and break it on Sept. 6 -- both games against the California Angels at Oriole Park.

Home or away, Ripken said early in the strike that he would support whatever action the union took, that his streak was secondary to the needs of his peers. Then he watched all winter as the streak became a focal point for other players and Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who spoke out that Ripken's streak needed to be preserved. Some within the union went so far as to suggest that Ripken should be allowed to play in replacement games to keep the streak intact.

"A lot of people expected me to react negatively or be angry that something I worked for was taken away," Ripken said. "But I didn't set out to do this [set a record]. I go out and do the things that I do because I believe that is what's right, that's what I do. It was strange, because I was pretty much at peace with the whole thing.

"It's flattering when the [players] association comes to your defense, but in some ways, I didn't want it to be an issue of collective bargaining. If you look at it from the union's side, they have the responsibility to represent everyone, not one person, so I felt uncomfortable when that came down.

"In some cases, with Mr. Angelos' stance and people having a definite opinion and seeing me as a victim, what happened was that my situation became symbolic of everyone's feelings -- the fans' feelings about baseball. How we follow statistics and how we follow history and how important the game is to us. They were using me as a symbol to show their feelings for baseball, and that's great, because I feel the same way about baseball."

He says he's as prepared for spring training as he could be. Ripken's been hitting every day, throwing every day, doing some running. "But there's only so much you can do without the benefit of a baseball field and a diamond and a lot of other people," Ripken said. "Physically, I feel I've done as much as I possibly can do.

"I haven't faced a 90-mph fastball, and that's all part of the spring training process, You can get up to speed pretty quickly."

Ripken admitted, however, that there were times in the off-season when he had a hard time motivating himself. When the strike began last August, Ripken said, "I really worked hard to keep that edge. I tried to do all kinds of things to simulate what I would be asked to do on a daily basis.

"Then when the WS [World Series] was canceled, it seemed like I just dropped everything I was doing. I needed time to recuperate and recover. And then when I went back into my workouts again, the motivation was down because you didn't really know what you were working toward. I did it pretty diligently, but not as well as I would've liked."

He was interviewed in mid-February and asked by a network reporter if he had struggled to get himself prepared. Ripken had to answer that he had, and he didn't like hearing that from himself. Maybe saying that helped motivate him, Ripken says now. He got back at it.

"My motivation really suffered for a long, long time," Ripken said, "and for some strange reason, I was able to click it in, and I feel really good about going to spring training now."

Much has been made in the off-season about where the record-breaker will be played.

Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson, angry with Angelos for his stance against replacement players and for bringing up Tony La Russa's name after the Orioles fired manager Johnny Oates, said that he would not be willing to move the Aug. 18 game from Oakland to Baltimore.

Under the revamped schedule, however, it appears that the game will be played at Camden Yards.

League officials left open the possibility that attempts to standardize the 144-game season for every team could alter the Orioles schedule, but AL spokeswoman Phyllis Merhige yesterday indicated that the league would try to accommodate Ripken and the Orioles.

"Let's wait to see what the schedule is," Merhige said. "I think we're aware he would like to do it at home."

To make the Sept. 6 record date possible, the Orioles would have to make up a game on an open date and might need approval from the players, but it is inconceivable that Ripken's teammates would vote against anything that would enable him to break the record at home.

That's definitely where Ripken wants the game to be played, assuming he gets there.

"I honestly try not to look that far ahead," Ripken said. "So many things can happen. But obviously, if this thing was to happen, I would want it at home. Without a question.

"This is my home. I grew up here, I've always been an Orioles fan. I've been able to live out my dream to be a baseball fan and to be an Oriole, both at the same time."

As he spoke, Ripken had only cursory knowledge of the cease-fire between owners and players, and he had lots of questions of his own:

Where will the Orioles train?

Where will they play?

When is the reporting date?

What were the terms of the arrangement that allows the players to return?

"I guess we're all concerned we don't have a collective bargaining agreement," he said, "because that will bring some stability for a while. That still needs to be addressed.

"The bottom line is baseball will resume, and that's what I do, that's what I work toward. That's what I want to do. Just on the narrow issue of going back to work, I'm very excited about that."

The streak lives.

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