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Ripken shortens longest winter; Basketball grounded, Iron Man tips off O's camp 5 days early; 'Eases in' after back surgery; Baseball fun replaces the tedium of rehab


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- An endless winter's abstinence from 3-on-3 basketball combined with a frequently tedious rehabilitation finally pushed Cal Ripken to the breaking point. Along with the Orioles' pitchers and catchers, Ripken walked into Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday, pulled on his uniform, grabbed hitting coach Terry Crowley and disappeared to a back field.

Providing camp's first positive sign, Ripken's playful shouts carried almost as far as a series of line drives.

Position players aren't due until Tuesday; however, a serious case of cabin fever caused the Orioles third baseman to interrupt his final week of vacation to begin a personal confirmation.

Almost five months after undergoing season-ending surgery to alleviate stenosis in his lower back, Ripken says he is ready to replace the tedium of running and stretching exercises with the fun of swinging, throwing and honing the fielding moves that were once second nature.

"Usually at this time of year I'd like to work in another 1 1/2 weeks of basketball and delay coming to spring training. But this year, with the back surgery and the rehab, I thought it was important to come down psychologically as much as physically," said Ripken, who put on a solo fielding clinic before pitchers took the field around 11 a.m. "I want to put my cleats on and give myself the extra week to ease into things. I just wanted to come down into an environment that was fun."

Looking more relaxed than at any time during his trying '99 season, Ripken gracefully fielded predictable questions regarding retirement (it's not planned, for now) and his chase of 3,000 hits (he's been stuck at 2,991 since last Sept. 21). He also voiced relief that acute back pain forced him to submit to surgery he had sidestepped for the previous two years.

Ripken said the question of surgery would have been "interesting" had spasms not forced him to leave the club in Arlington, Texas, and submit to a 90-minute procedure last Sept. 23.

"Then I would have been faced with a decision what to do about this upcoming season. In the end, [rest] wouldn't have been satisfactory enough," said Ripken, whose contradictory season included a .340 average and the second-best RBI ratio of his career but also absences from 76 games. "I want the best chance to compete and play regularly.

"Last year I had two extensive stays on the disabled list that caused me to miss 60-plus games. That's not acceptable. After analyzing everything, I think I probably would have made the decision to give myself the best opportunity to play a whole season. I probably would have chosen surgery. I'm kind of glad [my back] chose it for me."

The completion of Ripken's six-month rehab coincides with the end of camp. By then, manager Mike Hargrove hopes to have a better idea of how frequently the Iron Man may play. Ripken's season not only represents a comeback from surgery but an August celebration of his 40th birthday.

"I will play Cal as often as his back allows," Hargrove said. "If that's seven days a week, then it's seven days a week. If it's six, it's six. If it's five, it's five. I can tell you what I anticipate and that could be as close as you guessing."

Hargrove intends to meet with Ripken before next week's workouts. The two already have become better acquainted during a four-day December fantasy camp hosted by Ripken and at last month's FanFest. "I've told Cal I don't want to push him or him to push himself early and we lose him late. In other words, let's think long-term and not short-term and get him ready for the season and for 162 games," said Hargrove. "If that's playing 15 of 30 [exhibition] games, so be it."

Hargrove intends to groom Jeff Conine as Ripken's backup, which will serve as an additional reason to spell the starter this spring.

Indeed, Hargrove may be as closely scrutinized as his third baseman this spring. Without managing his first game in Baltimore, Hargrove inherits a situation that calls for delicate handling. After reluctantly projecting Ripken's role in December as starting four or five games a week, Hargrove has taken a step back.

"I'm certainly not going to be walking on egg shells," Hargrove said yesterday. "But I would never try to speak for Cal."

Asked where Ripken's status ranked among his spring concerns, Hargrove said, "On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being scared to death with no clue and 10 being absolutely confident, I'd be a seven or an eight. With surgery and injuries, you never know until you're at the other end. But I feel good that Cal's going to be fine. I've had reassurances from the trainers and doctors that things are going great."

Ripken has notified Hargrove he is "ahead of schedule." Residual numbness in the third baseman's right leg has subsided. The torque of swinging a bat and the stress of bending for ground balls no longer cause him to wince. A game that last season brought Ripken so much pain it sometimes left him breathless again represents a source of anticipation.

"I know there are no guarantees," said Ripken, who also enters camp without a contract beyond this season. "In my situation, it took 18 or 19 years to get to the point where I needed surgery. The thickening of the bone was a good thing in some respects, but it turned out to be a bad thing when it irritated my nerve. I hope those things are taken care of I've gotten cut on and now things have to go back and heal. Maybe I don't have the same kind of worries I had last year. I had concerns about the surgery. Each time you do something on the field, you get over the hump. In rehab, I've had many times when I've gotten over the hump."

Ripken then glanced toward the back field, a flat-looking place from his dugout seat but one that he knows offers the final climb in his return.

NOTES: Charles Johnson was one of four players who failed to participate in yesterday's opening workout for pitchers and catchers. The Orioles' Gold Glove catcher attended his arbitration hearing in Tampa, Fla., along with agent Scott Boras and the rest of a 10-person team that presented Johnson's case to a three-man panel. Johnson seeks a $5.1 million salary; the Orioles countered at $4.5 million.

Orioles general counsel Russell Smouse, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and assistant to vice president of baseball operations Bruce Manno headed the Orioles' delegation as the club attempted to beat Johnson at a hearing for the second straight year. Regardless of the outcome, which could be announced today, Johnson will receive at least a 35 percent raise over last season's $3.3 million salary. His hearing came on the final day arbitration cases were scheduled.

Pitchers Al Reyes, Radhames Dykhoff and Tim Worrell were tardy. Reyes and Dykhoff encountered visa problems while Worrell had trouble scheduling a cross-country flight Thursday.

All are expected to arrive in time for this morning's workout, according to Hargrove.

Nonroster pitcher Matt Ryan had to cut short yesterday's workout because of a leg muscle strain.

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