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2,997 down, last three slow to go


MINNEAPOLIS -- He got up and went to breakfast yesterday, four hits shy of 3,000 for another morning.

No, that's not a lyric from a country song. It's the lyrics to Cal Ripken's life as another milestone, one of his biggest, draws near.

"The people in the restaurant were really nice, wishing me luck and saying they hope I do it here," Ripken said before the Orioles played the Twins last night at the Metrodome. "I'm getting that a lot, wherever I go. Every time I was in the on-deck circle in Kansas City, there were fans going, 'C'mon, Cal, one step closer to 3,000.' They were sitting right behind me. I wanted to turn around and say, 'OK, I'm trying.' "

He's been trying for a while. That's part of the problem, maybe. He's been trying since last September, before his back gave out and his 1999 season ended nine hits shy of 3,000.

That was seven months ago -- seven months with 3,000 hanging right over him.

That's not meant as an excuse for the .184 average Ripken carried into last night, an average that's had him inching toward the milestone a lot slower than he wanted.

Still, it's clear an inverse connection of sorts is at work. The longer it takes, the harder it gets.

"I'm now in position to understand that, whereas the first 2,900 came pretty easily, the last 100 haven't come so easily at all," Ripken said. "Mainly because you're thinking about it all the time."

Even at breakfast.

Of course, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove dismissed the suggestion that Ripken, 39, might be pressing as the countdown moves along slowly.

"He's gotten to 2,996 without pressing," Hargrove said during batting practice, "Quite frankly, I think Cal's beyond the pressing stage of his career."

But whatever you want to call it, listening to Ripken yesterday, it's clear that having a carrot dangling in front of him has affected him.

"I feel like I'm running a little high," he said. "My excitement level is up. You want to keep it down and be calm, normal. The secret to hitting is being calm and controlling your emotions, whatever they may be. But I'm running a little high. That's the only way to describe it."

That was evident in Kansas City, where the Orioles lost three straight games to the Royals before coming to Minnesota. Ripken totaled only two hits in 12 at-bats. He was 5-for-30 coming into last night.

"Is this chase harder than chasing Lou Gehrig's [consecutive-games] record?" someone asked Ripken.

"More nerve-wracking," he said. "When I was doing that, you play a game and got credit for playing the game. Getting a hit requires you to get a hit. You actually have to do something. You can't just show up."

He did more than just show up in the second inning last night, taking an 0-1 pitch from Twins starter Eric Milton and lining it into right field for a single -- hit number 2,997. A small crowd at the Metrodome, thankful to be inside on a 45-degree night with snow in the forecast, saluted him with a cheer worthy of a Twins single.

The same fans booed Twins first baseman Ron Coomer two innings later for having the gall to catch a high foul Ripken hit off Milton.

And they really hooted Twins left fielder Jacque Jones for running down a booming liner Ripken nailed into the left-center gap in the fifth -- a ball with 2,998 written all over it.

Obviously, a lot of the fans had bought tickets just to see Ripken join Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield as future Hall of Famers who collected hit number 3,000 in the Metrodome.

There's a real chance it might happen, given the Twins' poor pitching, the way Ripken was swinging the bat last night -- hitting line drives all over the place -- and his .321 lifetime average in the Metrodome.

"I hit a lot of ground balls, and it's a fast track here," said Ripken, who ended up with one hit last night, leaving him three short of 3,000. "I always have a good feeling here. You get rewarded for ground balls."

With Will Clark out with back spasms and his replacement, Jeff Conine, hitting a home run last night, there's a chance Ripken might play in all three games this weekend, even though no one knows how his back will hold up on artificial turf. Normally, Conine would fill in for Ripken at least once, probably tomorrow.

Either way, it's possible Ripken could get real close to 3,000, if not all the way there, by the time the Orioles are done with the Twins tomorrow and headed home for a three-game series with the Devils Rays at Camden Yards beginning Monday.

For what it's worth, his family has joined him here in Minnesota in case it happens before Monday.

"Obviously, I'd prefer to do it at home; I'm from there and it means a lot to me to be able to perform in front of the home folks," Ripken said. "But I'm in the lineup, and the responsibility is to try to get hits and win. Getting close [to 3,000] is exciting, but I want to get to it and get things back to normal, where all I'm doing is worrying about playing baseball.

"I'd like to leave Minnesota with eight hits. That would make me happy."

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