'I still have the spirit'; Orioles: Cal Ripken fends off retirement talk, instead focusing on the chance to go out and play another season of the game he loves.; BASEBALL 2000

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Another season greets the his team -- and it still must be considered his team -- and another Question stands ready for Cal Ripken. If it's not The Streak, it's The Back. If not The Back, then it's all about The End. When do you sit? Can you sit? When do you walk away? Finally free from more than two seasons of searing pain, physical and emotional, the Iron Man is heavy-stepping toward 40 and answering questions that by now seem much older.

His view is simple, if it were only heard.

"The big picture is I love doing what I do. I love being a baseball player. I want to be a baseball player as long as I can,"

Barely six months ago, Ripken lay hunched over a surgeon's table in Cleveland, unsure whether the scalpel would tell him "enough." His 20th major-league season finally starts tomorrow, a refuge where he might be allowed simply to play. Finally, actions get to speak.

"It seems like ever since '95, there's been a question following him," pitcher Mike Mussina, who remains along with left fielder B.J. Surhoff, designated hitter Harold Baines, center fielder Brady Anderson and pitcher Scott Erickson from the bunch that pushed Ripken from the Camden Yards dugout Sept. 6, 1995, to take his magical lap after breaking Lou Gehrig's unbreakable record of 2,130 consecutive games played. "There always seemed to be a question about his motivation for playing every day, then afterward the question about how long he would keep doing it, then the questions about his back. But I guess since Cal sat down, the questions haven't seemed quite as loaded."

Years of media crush have given Ripken a sixth sense about wise-guy angles and leading questions. Unfailingly cooperative this spring, he has drawn the line at those things suggesting retirement. He downplayed the issue in February with a news conference. During a more recent photo shoot, Ripken was willing to pose at length with one provision: No shots allowed from the rear. Ripken assumes (in many instances correctly) that the angle represents a visual metaphor for a player's career passing. Unwilling to make such a concession verbally, he resents the lens whispering its 1,000 words.

At times, Ripken has joked about "the r-word" and glanced at a wristwatch during interviews to see how long before "the retirement question" arises. But he always answers.

"I can't project how things are going to be at the end of this year or in the middle of the year," Ripken says. "I'm just going to go out and play. I'm OK with that. I've had a great career. I still have the spirit inside of me to go outside and compete.

"It's a very comforting, very positive thing. There are no worries about it."

Calm amid uncertain future

Ripken has no comment about the organization's lack of motivation to discuss his career beyond this season. He has experienced much worse recently, watching cancer steal his father and idol, then last summer having to guess whether the next time he stood might cause his back to lock up or his left leg to go numb.

About five months shy of his 40th birthday, six months removed from lower-back surgery and nine hits short of 3,000, Ripken seemed to savor this spring more than others and certainly more than last year.

Only a day after being scratched from the lineup with a strained left trapezius muscle, Ripken drove himself two hours north to forsaken Viera, played perhaps his most impressive game of spring in a windy night exhibition against the Florida Marlins, spoke at length with the media afterward, then remained behind to sign autographs along the third-base line. The clubhouse emptied, the team bus pulled out and stories were filed with Ripken still signing in uniform.

Ripken lost his life's most powerful influence last March, yet discovered "a peace" he says allows him to embrace what's left of his career rather than flail at its end. He has played 2,790 major-league games; only 15 men have played more. Given last month's retirement of Tim Raines, only seven active players remain from the day Ripken began his consecutive-games streak in May 1982 -- Baines, Gary Gaetti, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Doug Jones, Jesse Orosco and Tony Phillips. Life after baseball is no longer a repulsive thought.

However long his career lasts, Ripken can now see beyond it. He has entered a partnership with Maryland Baseball chairman Peter Kirk and gained government funds to help construct a unique baseball complex in Aberdeen by next April. Ripken has committed $9 million of his money as well. A 6,000-seat minor-league park would be home to the independent Aberdeen Arsenal, with Ripken's younger brother, Bill, serving as its director of baseball operations. Six smaller surrounding fields, including an Inspiration Park, will be constructed as replicas of great parks to hold youth play and camps, and to serve as site for the Babe Ruth Baseball's Cal Ripken League (11-12) World Series.

"I know I have a great deal of responsibility to concentrate on playing. You really can't plan," Ripken says. "My first priority is to take care of playing. It's counterproductive to even consider anything beyond that for now. I do know the Babe Ruth project has got my juices flowing."

Bill describes his brother's role in all aspects of operation as "really hands-on," with an increased role following his retirement. The brothers remain heavily influenced by their father. Cal speaks easily of his memory. Bill speaks with more pause.

"We hope to emphasize that Cal Ripken Baseball stands for [Cal] Sr.," Bill says. "If there wasn't a Sr., there wouldn't have been a Jr. He probably would have played in the big leagues, but the chances of him going to the Hall of Fame wouldn't have been so strong. I may have never gotten to the big leagues."

Cal Ripken inherited his father's passion for instruction and plans to perpetuate Sr.'s teachings in a book that will also include some of the son's methods for making instruction more enjoyable.

Outlook more relaxed

Once a hostage to time, Ripken now seems more able to find it for those who approach. The questions may be almost as predictable, but they are perceived as less threatening.

"In the past, I considered the emphasis on The Streak to be an assault on him," says Ripken's younger brother, business partner and former teammate, Bill. "There was an awful lot of blame pointed his way whenever something went wrong with the Birds. Usually, it was because he was tired and wasn't helping the team. It was venomous, I thought. Now when people approach him about his back or retirement, it's not that way. I think it's more about concern. It seems like talk about this is a little less harsh. It's just pondering a question: 'When do you think enough is enough?' "

Adds Home Team Sports broadcaster, Hall of Fame pitcher and former Ripken teammate Jim Palmer: "Maybe Cal realizes there's a certain mortality as a player. It's all right to have an injury after experiencing all that wear and tear on your body. Everybody admires Cal whether you're an advocate of The Streak or not. Now there's a human frailty there. He's much more human."

Once again, the Orioles are a veteran bunch. This season -- because of last December's trade of reliever Orosco to the New York Mets -- there will be only one player (Baines) older than Ripken on the Opening Day roster. Ripken is one of eight who will be 35 before season's end, along with Anderson, Baines, Surhoff, Rich Amaral, Mike Bordick, Will Clark and Buddy Groom.

Ripken is tantalizingly close to both the end of a magnificent career and a magical 1999 season in which he batted a career-best .340 while rediscovering a slugger's bat speed. His average was 12 points higher the club single-season record set by Ken Singleton in 1977. His 18 home runs were four more than he generated in 269 more at-bats the previous season.

'Silver linings' amid grief

Ripken believes last year's trauma also led to an epiphany. He remembers the loss of his father as "the worst thing I went through, and within the worst moment there were some silver linings. Being in the hospital for the last three days was terrible the worst thing anyone can imagine. But being with the nucleus of your family for that same time is the best."

Says Bill: "When something like that happens it changes your thinking on everything. Realizing what you have and for how long you have it is something that you think about more often."

A marketer's slogan may hold that "Baseball is Life, the Rest is Details." Ripken no longer subscribes.

"I've derived a lot of satisfaction and joy out of what I do, but life is what provides the real good stuff. My dad was in baseball, but it wasn't because of baseball that I loved my dad, and we had a great relationship and we shared certain things. It was because of him as a person and me as a person. It's the same way with my family and my brothers and sisters."

Last season provided time for much reflection. Ripken missed almost as many games (76) as he played (86) and admits a "feeling of detachment" while disabled. He didn't accompany the club on the road and could only trudge through the clubhouse in exercise clothes during homestands. Players recall him frequently grimacing, sometimes smiling but rarely laughing. Ripken walked "on eggshells" for the first five weeks of camp but also rejoined the verbal and occasionally physical sparring with teammates he cherishes.

"Maybe the joy of being on the field again is the most important thing to me as a player, not the pressure of what you're going to do," Ripken says. "I think I've had a pretty good career. Why worry about things? While I'm playing, let me enjoy how much fun baseball can be."

No longer slave to routine

Time was when Ripken would carry several watches with him on the road. His pre-game routine is scripted to the minute. But no longer bound to 162 games every season, Ripken has added flexibility.

"People say I'm a prisoner to the schedule. For the sake of my family life, I'd like to break that cycle a little bit before my kids move out," he says. "If I leave baseball, there's going to be a void that needs to be filled. I'm sure I'll fill it in a baseball way. But I know I'll try to fill it in other ways, too."

Last week Ripken assumed sole ownership of the Baltimore BayRunners minor-league basketball franchise. His association with Chevrolet trucks will remain beyond his playing career, as will numerous other endorsements. Whenever his career ends, Ripken promises he will always keep his home near Baltimore, though he does foresee a "travel stage."

Ripken is a self-described "big picture" person who makes decisions neither hurriedly or emotionally. He recalls his decision to conclude The Streak near the end of the 1998 season was made at least three months before because of the incessant "management of streak affairs."

Ripken at first planned to go to Fenway Park on the season's final day, "take it off and not really comment on it. Just go back to what everybody else thinks is normal." But Kelly Ripken persuaded her husband to reconsider. Instead of sitting out the season's ultimate getaway day, why not give the moment to Baltimore? Ripken ultimately did so on Sept. 20. Camden Yards will remember the night as a celebration. Ripken still recalls making the decision out of mental fatigue and exasperation more than physical wear.

"It seemed whenever anything went wrong, The Streak was brought up in many different negative ways. That's totally alien to the way I think," Ripken says. "I thought people who came to the ballpark not wanting to play should be defending their position. It seemed backwards to me. I just got tired of defending it. I'm the one who has to live with it.

"Is pressure alleviated? No, it's exactly the same, with the exception of defending your desire to want to play. I don't have to do that anymore."

This is different. The Question has now morphed. It is the last one he will ultimately answer as a player. The thought process will be just as analytical as those regarding The Streak and The Back. Until his body tells him differently, Cal Ripken remains a ballplayer.

"The big picture is your whole life. You have a small window to be a player. I want to maximize that window," he says. "I've got the rest of my life to do other things."

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