Road to 3,000 isn't 1 lane; Ripken will take milestone hit away from home, too; 'Wherever they fall'; Oriole eager to put mark behind him


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record before an adoring crowd at Camden Yards. He hit his 400th home run at home, too. He would love to reach his final major milestone in Baltimore, but he said yesterday that he'll take career hit No. 3,000 anyway -- and anywhere -- he can get it.

He drove hit No. 2,995 into the left-field bleachers at Kauffman Stadium last night, and appears positioned to make history this weekend in Minneapolis, the second stop on the Orioles' first road trip of the season.

It's not the ideal location, but it'll be OK with Ripken if it happens that way.

"Obviously, if things played out perfectly, you'd get it at home," Ripken said yesterday, "but it's a situation where you aren't going to fudge it. I'm trying to get hits all the time. Wherever they fall, they fall."

Ripken clearly is torn on this. He enjoyed the celebration that took place when he tied and broke Gehrig's record, but he also was happy to put streakmania behind him.

The quest for 3,000 hits has put him in a similar situation, though certainly not of the same magnitude. When Ripken held court for a small crowd of local and national reporters before last night's game, he made it clear that he will be happy when his baseball life gets back to normal.

"I'd rather not have the attention," he said. "I'd like to get things back to a normal routine."

This is typical Ripken. He resisted all attempts to focus on the streak until it could no longer be avoided, then embraced it as the 1995 season counted down to his magic moment. This week, as he counts down to 3,000, the anticipation of the milestone is mixed with the desire to immerse himself in the club's exciting start.

Somebody asked him yesterday where it would rank alongside his other accomplishments. Ripken didn't really have an answer.

"I don't know," he said. "There have been so many good things that have happened to me. It's just another one of those things that happens when you play a long time. I am looking forward to getting there and finding out how it feels."

Ripken, who moved to third base after establishing himself as the most prolific power-hitting shortstop in the history of the game, has homered twice in the first seven games of the season. It would be a nice touch to go deep for hit No. 3,000 -- as future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs did last year -- but Ripken said he won't be picky.

"I'd take any kind of hit, just to get on base and get things rolling," he said. "I'll take a jam-job hit or a bad decision from the official scorer anything."

Maduro or Mercedes?

No. 4 and No. 5 starters Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes will each make one more start before manager Mike Hargrove has to decide which one will settle into a more regular slot in the rotation.

Mercedes survived a rocky first inning to record the victory over the Detroit Tigers on Sunday. Maduro struggled to get through four innings on Friday night. One of them will have to drop into a long relief role after his next start and both could be on the bubble when Scott Erickson and Jason Johnson rejoin the rotation.

No timetable has been set for Erickson, but Hargrove indicated that the club is getting close to putting together a more concrete schedule for the veteran right-hander's return from elbow surgery.

Riley rocked

Orioles pitching prospect Matt Riley gave up five runs over two innings in his first start of the year for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. He apparently is still attempting to right himself after a difficult spring, but Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift blamed the rocky appearance on a hostile pitching environment.

"The wind chill up there was 8 degrees," Thrift said. "You can throw that one out. I'm just glad nobody got hurt."

Split success

When Mike Trombley broke into professional baseball in 1989, he included a split-fingered fastball among his three-pitch repertoire. But he put it on the shelf after that season in favor of a changeup taught to him by former teammate Denny Neagle, the Gambrills native who used the pitch to baffle Single-A hitters. Trombley figured he wasn't ready to add a pitch without subtracting another.

It wasn't until 1996, while moving into a closer's role for the Minnesota Twins' Triple-A Salt Lake affiliate, that Trombley brought back the splitter. Now he had four pitches. Now he had put the minors behind him for good.

"I'm not hiding the fact that the split has really helped my career," he said. "It actually made my other pitches better. But it's one of those things where, if you have bad mechanics, you have no chance of throwing a good one."

The pitch doesn't come without some controversy. There are managers and baseball officials who believe the splitter puts too much strain on the arm and leads to serious injuries. The Orioles discourage their younger pitchers from using it in the minors.

"We do have concerns about the pitch," said Thrift. "We did with Sidney [Ponson] in A ball. We felt it put too much stress on the elbow. There's proof of that."

Said Hargrove: "The people who throw it, their arm has to be in very good shape."

Pitching coach Sammy Ellis said the splitter isn't dangerous if thrown properly.

Guys have been throwing curveballs and sliders for over 100 years. Some guys have hurt their elbows throwing curveballs and some guys have hurt their elbows throwing sliders. But you don't stop throwing curveballs and sliders," he said.

"Some guys maybe have hurt their elbows throwing a split, but there are other guys who have been throwing it for years. Some guys have turned their whole career around. I coached Jack McDowell who didn't have a very good breaking ball at all, but he had a split-finger that he could throw at a couple different speeds, and he won a Cy Young Award and he won a lot of games and he made a lot of money.

"And there was Mike Scott in Houston. He won a Cy Young Award. I saw him pitch in Triple-A. He was a big guy with a great arm, but he didn't have a very good breaking ball. He was a fringe big-league pitcher. Someone in Houston taught him the split-finger and he went on to make a fortune. Jack Morris came up with a split-finger and took off. I don't know if Jack Morris would have been that good without that pitch."

Are hitters beginning to catch up to the pitch? Ellis doesn't believe so.

"If Bruce Sutter was pitching right now, he'd still be unhittable. If you go and ask the hitters, they don't want to hit off it. They hope they can lay off it."

Trombley hopes that they can't.

Around the horn

Ripken marked two other career milestones in Kansas City. On Aug. 10, 1981, he made his major-league debut in Royals Stadium, and in 1996 he played in his 2,216th consecutive game, breaking Sachio Kinugasa's world major-league record.

Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

Late O's game Last night's Orioles-Royals game in Kansas City, Mo., did not end in time to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http: //

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

Time: 8: 05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: O's Pat Rapp (1-0, 3.00) vs. Royals' Mac Suzuki (0-0, 9.00)

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