Media onslaught greets him, but O's have game plan to help On iron horse, Ripken streaks into season in spotlight


SARASOTA, Fla. -- They stood in a line 30 yards from the Orioles clubhouse, each aiming at the players entrance, waiting for their prey to step through the door.

The camera people and photographers, about 20 in all, started shooting the instant that Cal Ripken Jr. emerged from the building and ran out for his first official on-field appearance in what promises to be a season filled with news conferences and sound bites.

Eclipsing Lou Gehrig's record of playing 2,130 consecutive games could be easier for Ripken than dealing with the daily throng of media that will greet him. He awoke early yesterday to make an appearance on a network TV morning show, ran the gauntlet of cameras in mid-morning, held a 30-minute news conference early in the afternoon, sat for several one-on-one TV interviews.

And he played baseball. Whew.

"This experience today is different than other spring trainings I've had," Ripken said, looking around the roomful of reporters. "If this continues like this, I don't know if I'll have a sense of excitement, or if it will be a distraction. I don't know."

The Orioles are making plans to help Ripken deal with the intense media interest without interfering with his daily regimen as a ballplayer. John Maroon, recently hired as the Orioles' media relations director, flew to Florida with Ripken on Wednesday and discussed ways to deal with the mass of reporters.

Among them:

* Each time the Orioles travel to a different city, there will be another set of newspaper and TV reporters who will want to tell the Cal Ripken story, and he will hear the same questions repeatedly.

Maroon says that the Orioles may hold one informal news conference for Ripken during each road series. For instance, when the Orioles travel to Minnesota for a four-game series April 27, Ripken may meet with the media as a whole that Friday, or maybe that Saturday. In this way, Maroon says, Ripken can answer "the streak questions" all at once, so he doesn't have to think of 15 different ways to address his perspective on the streak.

* Maroon may generate transcripts, audio and videotape of the news conferences and answer press requests in this way. Suppose the Orioles and Ripken are flying into Kansas City and he couldn't find the time to meet the press. Maroon may offer the transcripts, audio and videotape instead, or just send them ahead of time to meet the requests.

* If and when Ripken nears Gehrig's record, the Orioles will begin issuing special credentials for the days that Ripken is to tie and break the mark; special event credentials like these usually are reserved for the All-Star Game, the playoffs and World Series. "And this is going to be an event," Maroon said.

Ripken was forthright when discussing the siege. He will try to go about his business just as he plays, one day at a time. "I'm going to do the best I can," he said. "I might handle it fine, I might handle it terribly."

What Ripken hopes is that the Orioles will win and that their success will overshadow his pursuit of Gehrig's record. Wishful thinking, of course; if they win, that will only serve to attract more stories about Ripken and the streak and his importance to the Orioles and to the game.

Manager Phil Regan, who agreed the perpetual focus on Ripken could serve to take pressure off his teammates, said he didn't think the constant coverage would hurt Ripken. "I know there's going to be a lot of attention to him, and I don't think he's one who's going to get very excited about these things," said Regan.

In fact, Ripken seemed to embrace the situation, surprising Maroon -- who only met Ripken two days ago and wasn't quite sure how he would handle all this scrutiny -- by asking how he could best accommodate all the reporters jammed into the small media room.

But, try as he may, Ripken won't be able to make everybody happy. So many camera people gathered in front of the clubhouse that the Orioles kept them off the field long enough for Ripken to stretch in peace. Then, when batting practice began, the camera people were told to maintain a respectable distance, so as not to crowd the players.

Spiro Alafassos, the Orioles' assistant media relations director, looked like an army lieutenant forming a firing line; he would walk to a spot past which the camera people could not go, and they scurried into a row, lenses aimed toward the field for a glimpse of the Oriole wearing No. 8.

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