Ripken needs '00 for 3,000, but is that it?; Iron Man has said game will tell him when to quit, surgery notwithstanding


BOSTON -- It was the first rite of spring. Position players had just reported to Fort Lauderdale Stadium last February. Intending to answer the crush of questions as quickly and as conclusively as possible, Cal Ripken sat encircled by a national media tour and addressed the predictable.

Would this be the Iron Man's final season?

"I can't make a prediction. I don't know," Ripken said. "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."

Seven months, 113 hits, two trips to the disabled list and one back operation later, Ripken's words ring louder than ever. Thursday's surgery to alleviate a painful condition called spinal stenosis will resurrect predictable questions about his longevity.

Nine hits shy of 3,000 and coming off the most surprising season of his Hall of Fame career, Ripken and the Orioles have given every indication that he plans to return to third base in 2000. But what then?

There is an assumption both inside and outside the Orioles' clubhouse that next season will be Ripken's last, that his $6.3 million contract option, his 40th birthday and his extensive rehabilitation from last week's surgery will allow him to reach 3,000 hits but ultimately persuade him to make the second half a farewell tour of the American League.

As Ripken said that day in Florida, "Toward the end of your career, you have to go with the flow, then you have to make some of those tough decisions."

Ripken's comfortable relationship with former teammate and current hitting coach Terry Crowley, his .340 average and reclaimed power, his fresher outlook given the absence of Streak questions all of them virtually assure the third baseman's embrace of a 19th full major-league season.

(A casualty of the surgery may be Ripken's ability to produce hit No. 3,000 at home. After opening next season with six games at Camden Yards, the Orioles play three games apiece at Kansas City and Minnesota.)

But what about 2001? Ripken's $6.3 million contract option will expire. He will be 40 and the Orioles should again be looking to extend the "transition" begun this year under first-year general manager Frank Wren.

Doubtless Ripken will eventually answer the question next spring much as he did last February. The Game will tell.

"In a lot of ways when you're 38 it's like when you're 21," said Ripken, who celebrated another birthday last month. "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 scrutiny. That's the nature of what we do, and we succeed and fail right out in front. You can't hide from that."

Sprinting toward 3,000 hits last week in Anaheim, Ripken had yet to experience the recurring back spasms that wrenched him from sleep Wednesday night in Dallas. Asked whether this season had in some ways mentally freed him given the absence of Streak questions, Ripken paused before answering. "Perhaps to a small extent," he said, "but at the same time there have been questions about my health and my ability to come back from the disabled list that I've never had to address before. In that respect, one set of questions has been replaced by another."

Some team members wondered whether achieving 3,000 hits this season might have induced Ripken to retire. Others assumed next year would be his last.

"It would have been nice for him to come back next year on his own terms. There's no pressure on him getting 3,000. He's going to get it. But he's got to be careful. Right now I don't know what his plans are," said starting pitcher Scott Erickson. "Before, Cal didn't have to come back. Now he has to come back to get 3,000 hits. He could've come back and played once in each park as a going-away thing and they could have done something for him. That would've been pretty nice."

Given the absence of information emanating from University Hospitals in Cleveland Wednesday, speculation will only grow regarding the nature of the procedure, the difficulty of Ripken's approaching rehabilitation and the likelihood of his recapturing this year's lightning.

Ripken has often said he has no interest in becoming a ceremonial player or suffering through obvious decline before pulling the plug. This season suggested none of that. Yet doctors warn that even surgery considered "successful" can rob a player.

Though no back surgery is called routine, orthopedists say the risk is reduced considerably because he had never undergone such a procedure and accumulated scar tissue in the region.

Club officials, family members and others familiar with the procedure said the 90-minute surgery consisted of Ripken receiving a four-inch scalpel line in his lower back. By that evening, he was able to walk around his hospital room, albeit with some discomfort. He spoke with his wife, Kelly, and had phone conversations with other family members .

For now, Ripken, his doctors, his team and his marketing group have chosen not to take questions. However, the third baseman has helped craft not only a career but also a mystique from taking assumptions and turning them into folly. Cal Ripken in 2001 might be the next example.

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