FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Cal Ripken loves baseball and hates hypotheticals, so when reporters asked him about the "R" word yesterday, no one expected him to detail his plans for retirement.
Ripken isn't ready to retire. He doesn't need to retire. But he turns 39 in August, and his contract is expiring. One of these days -- perhaps even at the end of this season -- it will be time.
Michael Jordan went out on top. John Elway might do the same. Wouldn't it be perfect if Ripken delivered his 3,000th hit, smashed his 400th homer, won another World Series and walked away?
The first goal is likely this season -- Ripken is 122 hits short of 3,000. The second is possible -- he's 16 homers short of 400. The third? Well, Ripken can always dream.
The Orioles third baseman said yesterday that he hadn't thought of the perfect ending, but he concluded his consecutive-games streak with such grace, it's safe to assume that he'll figure it out.
Ripken doesn't figure to go out like his idol, Brooks Robinson, who batted .201 in his last year as a regular, then hung on two more seasons.
When will Ripken retire?
When he no longer can play.
As carefully as Ripken plots each step, it's difficult to imagine him not putting his best foot forward.
"Toward the end of your career, you have to go with the flow, go with the game, go with the season," Ripken said in a group interview at the Orioles' spring training complex.
"Look at Paul Molitor, he just retired. I don't know when the thoughts in his mind kept creeping in. But when you get 215 or 216 hits at 40 years old, that changes your perception of what's going on.
"You can't lie to yourself. You can't not be real. You have to look at what's going on, how you feel and make judgments. I can't make a prediction. I don't know."
The Orioles hold a $6.3 million option on Ripken's contract for the 2000 season. They tried to sign free-agent third baseman Robin Ventura over the winter. Their approach to Ripken is clearly wait-and-see.
Both of their third-base prospects are 25. Willis Otanez is out of options and likely will be traded. Ryan Minor struck out 152 times last season at Double-A Bowie, and now must prove himself at Triple-A Rochester.
What happens if Minor emerges as a legitimate third-base candidate for 2000? Ripken could move to first and Will Clark to DH. But if Calvin Pickering also is ready at first, the squeeze could be even tighter.
The Orioles should be so lucky.
The fact is, Ripken controls his own destiny. He's coming off two straight seasons of offensive decline, and his range at third has diminished. But he has legitimate reason to believe this season will be one of recovery.
For one thing, his winter routine was devoted to baseball-related activity, instead of rehabilitating a herniated disk. For another, he batted .308 in his final 59 games and looked better in the field as the season progressed, leading American League third basemen with a .979 fielding percentage.
Then there is the matter of The Streak.
Ripken said he feels no euphoria now that it is over, no relief, no sadness. He has no idea whether days off will improve his performance or prolong his career. But the pressure is off, and none other than Albert Belle believes Ripken will benefit from the mental break.
"Things are back to normal," said Belle, who arrives in Baltimore with the majors' longest consecutive-games streak, 334 games. "He doesn't have to worry about The Streak. He can just go out, have fun and perform."
Of course, it will all mean nothing if Ripken's skills decline to the point where he no longer can contribute, if his reflexes deteriorate. His home runs have declined from 26 to 17 to 14 the past three seasons, his RBIs from 102 to 84 to 61. He is little more than a singles hitter now.
Then again, Ripken keeps himself in terrific condition and relishes a challenge. He put together comeback seasons in 1991, '94 and '96. He should be an ideal candidate to play into his 40s.
"There are signs," Ripken said. "If you can still turn around Randy Johnson's fastball, if Roger [Clemens] comes inside with his 93-mph fastball, you're still able to [hit] it, then you can say, well, your skills are still there."
Whatever, this will be another season of milestones, another season of celebrations.
Ripken, Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs should all reach 3,000 hits, and Ripken also could join the less exclusive 400-homer club. Both milestones virtually guarantee entry into the Hall of Fame, not that Ripken needs help with his candidacy.
He already ranks among the top 20 all-time in doubles, and he also could finish in the top 20 in games played, hits and RBIs. Will he retire at his peak? No. But the way he ended The Streak, Ripken proved that he knows when it is time to let go.
"At some point, your skill does not get any better," Ripken said. "You develop your skill to a certain point, and you hold on to that skill. Through your experience and understanding of the game, you compete. You're tested every day to compete.
"When I can't compete at this level, I won't play."
Where Cal Ripken ranks on the all-time lists:
Category No. Rank
Games 2,704 21st
Hits 2,878 33rd
Doubles 544 16th
Home runs 384 35th
RBIs 1,514 35th
Pub Date: 2/26/99