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Scrutiny of Ripken won't rest; Streak is dead issue, but spotlight's bright after his subpar 1998; 'You can't hide from that'; O's 3rd baseman won't speculate on next year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Describing himself as entering "uncharted territory," Cal Ripken entered his first post-streak spring training and potentially the last installment of his contract by saying he will allow this season to determine whether he continues a Hall of Fame career in 2000.

"I can't make a prediction. I don't know," the Orioles' third baseman said during a late-morning news conference in the Fort Lauderdale Stadium home dugout. "I love the game so much that I want to be competitive. I want to play as long as I can. But if I can't be competitive, I won't play."

Ripken, 38, gave every indication he intends to be competitive. He faced yesterday's herd of national media a little more gray but no less fit and no less determined to show his contributions can match his passion for the game. Five months after surrendering the streak at 2,632 games on Sept. 20, Ripken seemed to acknowledge that he will be judged more as a player than as an icon.

"Toward the end of your career, you have to go with the flow. Then you have to make some of those tough decisions," he said.

Ripken's contract is guaranteed through this season. The Orioles must then decide whether they will assume his $6.3 million option for next season. Subtly, Ripken acknowledged what awaits.

"In a lot of ways when you come to spring training at 38 it's like when you were 21," he said. "You're under scrutiny to play every time. That never goes away.

"When you're on the field, you're in a forum with everybody watching. In some ways you would hope everybody would do their job under the same kind of scrutiny. That's the nature of what we do, and we succeed and fail right out there in front. You can't hide from that."

Neither Ripken nor his team could escape a difficult, sometimes embarrassing 1998 in which an expensive roster came undone because of injuries and what some within the organization deemed a lack of intensity. Referring to his own and the fourth-place team's struggles, Ripken classified last season as "a big hole" that created an incessant sense of urgency.

"For me personally, it was a struggle. I was trying to dig myself out," Ripken said. "I feel good. I made some adjustments, as radical as they seemed at the time. I was proud of the way I was able to play down the stretch. I corrected it. Hopefully, you add to what you found out at the start of this season."

Ripken endured a herniated disk in 1997 and admitted disappointment in last season's production, which included a career-low 61 RBIs, 14 home runs and the lowest slugging percentage (.389) among regulars. However, he lifted his average to .271 with a late rush that included a .308 average in his last 59 games.

Criticism reached Ripken two years ago over his refusal to sit despite his painful back. Last season he didn't hit his third home run until May 9 and entered the All-Star break hitting .258. Eventually, the constant association of the streak with his every downturn became a tiresome cross, though his desire for playing never waned.

With his team beset by injuries last season, manager Ray Miller appreciated Ripken's availability. Now, he also appreciates the absence of speculation over when the streak will cease.

"The weight on my shoulders about Cal's streak wasn't that big a thing to me last year," Miller said. "I will say this: At least [the streak's conclusion] leaves the way for common sense. If a guy has played 10, 12 days in a row and there's a stretch where travel's tough and he's been dragging, common sense says you can give Cal a day off. It took the pressure off that."

Ripken enters the denouement of his career likely to eclipse 3,000 hits and 400 home runs this season. Only 20 players have achieved 3,000 hits and 27 have hit 400 home runs. Ripken needs 122 hits and 16 homers to reach both plateaus.

"What it really signifies is that you were able to play a long time and play pretty well," Ripken said, somewhat downplaying the monuments.

Ripken sidestepped questions about how many games he will sit this season. Prodded about the benefits of rest, he pleaded ignorance.

"I know what it's like to play 162 games," said Ripken, who has played an entire schedule 15 times. "My opinion is if you play 100 games, or you play 140 games, or you play 162 games, there are going to be days when you feel really good and there are going to be days when you don't feel really good. I don't think there's any direct correlation between how you feel before the game starts and how you play.

"I've had some of my greatest games when I've felt the worst and some of my worst games when I felt the best."

The thought of surgically choosing which games to sit repulses Ripken. Inferences that he might dodge dominant pitchers are an insult.

"Productivity-wise, if I could pick 10 games a season [to miss], my statistics would be considerably better at the end of the season," he said. "Does it help you if you take [Roger] Clemens and [Randy] Johnson and those guys off?

"The purpose is to win games. Those guys can be beat, but if you say you're not available for that game, what are your chances to beat them?"

Of the streak's passing, Ripken reiterated, "There were no regrets. No feeling of euphoria. No feeling of sadness. Everything seemed very normal to me. It seemed like sometimes I had to convince [the media] that the intentions are what they are."

His intentions this season are to find a comfort zone early in the season, something that eluded him in 1998, when Ripken unveiled numerous batting stances and was dropped from sixth to seventh in the batting order.

"It's a tough way to play when you try to play yourself out of a hole and get yourself into a groove and a rhythm when you're playing every single day. Last year was no exception," Ripken said.

He added: "It seemed like the season was being decided really early. You're playing every day like it's the seventh game of the World Series. In a 162-game schedule, you run out of energy."

Rather than hurl himself into an off-season conditioning program designed to rehabilitate a sore back, Ripken said he devoted this winter to "more skill work" such as hitting, throwing and fielding. Miller sent letters to each player asking that he make just such a commitment.

The staple of a veteran clubhouse that has lost 11 members from last year's season opener, Ripken also openly accepted right fielder Albert Belle. Reacting to a question referring to the players' disparate reputations, Ripken offered a clean slate.

"Who is someone to sit in judgment of someone else's life?" he said. "You come out there to be a baseball player. I look at Albert as a teammate. I look at him as a baseball player. If certain things get in the way of what you're trying to accomplish as a team, that's an issue. If it's not an issue for what you're trying to accomplish as a team, it's not an issue."

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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