Cal Ripken carefully reclined at his locker Sunday wearing a two-day growth. The previous two mornings were so uncomfortable, he jokes that he couldn't lift a razor, though the night before, when he had declined manager Mike Hargrove's offer to rest, Ripken had found a way to include a two-run home run among his second three-hit game of the season.
Sunday, there was no question. What the third baseman calls "a little pebble in the shoe" jabbing pain that has traced the outside of his left leg for much of the past six weeks, was still there.
"The intensity of the pain is pretty good today," said Ripken, meaning the opposite. "I'm trying to get a handle on it. Before, I've always played ahead."
Almost nine months removed from surgery to alleviate a condition called stenosis in his lower back, Ripken continues to reconcile a productive season with residual nerve irritation that on this day leaves him looking more like Rip Van Winkle than Rip Jr. At 39, he is willing to accept the compromises demanded by age and his condition while still able to give the Orioles a team-high 13 home runs and 40 RBIs, a pace that translates to 34 home runs and 106 RBIs over an entire season. But if he is making it look easy, it isn't.
Hargrove checks his condition regularly. Less than two hours before Saturday night's first pitch, he met with the player before changing third basemen. Ripken, who has played in 50 of the Orioles' 60 games thus far, assured Hargrove he could go.
"The toughest thing for me is knowing how to manage my season," said Ripken, who played in only 86 games last season because of two stays on the disabled list and the season-ending surgery. "If you have a chance to rest or sleep, the first time you get up you almost think it's not there. When you start doing something, it kicks in."
Ripken has sandwiched this season's production around a return visit in May to Cleveland orthopedic specialist Dr. Henry Bohlman, a magnetic resonance imaging that discovered leftovers from last September's surgery, and the need to abbreviate his pre-game routine to better conserve his flexibility during games. He regularly misses day games after night games, and the last time he played an entire series on artificial turf, it intensified surgical aftershocks that still follow him.
"You're dealing with a new set of circumstances, so you have to be open to how your body feels and how it impacts you. It was simple for me," Ripken said.
Ripken's preparation has typically begun several hours before each day's game and included on-field hitting, stretching, running and taking ground balls from coaches during batting practice. Ripken and hitting coach Terry Crowley would then disappear into an indoor batting cage, where Ripken would take more swings.
But during last month's six-game road trip to New York and Toronto, he began feeling a burning sensation that extended down his left leg. Increased numbness followed, and Ripken's concern grew.
"That was different. That's not really consistent with surgery," he recalled. "Surgery is supposed to take care of that."
Ripken played every game on the trip - three of them on SkyDome's artificial surface - and hit safely in five games, homering twice against the Yankees. But he also became increasingly uncomfortable. A dive play during a May 11 series opener against the Boston Red Sox jarred him, and Hargrove removed him before the seventh inning of a game the Orioles trailed 10-4.
The next day, his pain was so excruciating it forced Ripken from a matchup against Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, a concession he hated to make.
"A few years ago, I would have just plowed ahead," Ripken said, "but after having surgery, I had to find the source."
An MRI and Bohlman's May 15 exam discovered that a fragment had eluded suction during Ripken's Sept. 23 back surgery and was irritating a nerve. A shot was administered, and Ripken was told it would take six weeks for the area to calm down.
Ripken refers to those six weeks as "almost a magic number." He looks at a calendar to remind himself that the term passes June 26, the day the Orioles land in Boston after a red-eye flight from Seattle.
"A bigger bulge or bigger fragment would cause you excruciating pain and shut you down," Ripken said, likening the sensation to a herniated disc. "This is like a little pebble in the shoe."
The level of Ripken's discomfort is no clubhouse secret. He has described the irritated nerve as "what causes the fire inside your leg." Teammates have seen him grimace while padding through the halls, then drive pitches hours later.
"Everybody here can look at that and get inspired," said shortstop Mike Bordick, one of three Orioles yet to miss a game this season. "It would be easy for anybody to take a couple weeks off. He's not only played through it, he's played great. It's something he can play with, obviously."
The old shortstop has reclaimed an old device to lighten his feet. Before every pitch, Ripken steps toward the plate, hops and lands with his feet spread. Much as a tennis player springs before receiving serve, Ripken calls the move a "jump start" that enables him to move more quickly to either side.
"All that is to try to get some momentum," said Ripken, conceding that the pain and weakness in his left leg have robbed him of some of his explosiveness.
"If he can be up and get down on the ground [when the ball is hit], then that's fine. It involves timing like hitting or anything else," said third base and infield coach Sam Perlozzo. "If he's still in the air when the ball is hit, it throws him off. But everybody has a routine. If this helps, great."
Ripken has compared the pain he felt before seeing Bohlman to that which shot through him during summer 1997 and repeatedly last season. Three years ago, he played through the back pain, often standing or stretching himself over a chair back to maintain flexibility between innings. Last year, he constructed an amazingly productive season - .340 batting average, 18 home runs and 57 RBIs in 332 at-bats - despite a noticeable limp.
Surgery has brought him relief, though the past several weeks have offered a reminder. "There are a lot of things I'm happy about," said Ripken, two months shy of his 40th birthday. "I'm happy I'm able to stand in the box, feel good and pop the ball. I have a lot more freedom of movement in the field, a whole lot more flexibility than I had the last two years. I didn't realize to what point I had gotten with the stenosis, looking back on it."
Ripken says this season has yet to give him a conclusive indication about whether he should make this his last or press on. He is a shoo-in for election to an 18th consecutive All-Star Game, and his production numbers serve as a counter to his recent discomfort.
"There are all sorts of ways this season will be evaluated. Physically will be one of them," Ripken said. "When you're in May and you're doing certain things to get on the field, you're thinking this is going to be a long season if it's going to be this way all year. But the other side is that you have certain expectations from surgery. There are going to be bumps along the road.
"This could very well be a bump along the road."
NOTE: The Orioles acquired minor-league outfielder Karim Garcia from the Detroit Tigers for future considerations.
Garcia, who appeared in eight games with Detroit before he was sent outright to Triple-A Toledo, was hitting .297 with 15 homers and 38 RBIs for the Mud Hens. He is expected to report to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Rangers' Rick Helling (7-4, 4.00) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (2-3, 6.80)