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Ripken's pain has a voice of its own


The games started to grow for him about the time the Orioles made New York. It was the first week of May and the Orioles had climbed to 15-10 and were answering questions about how appropriate a barometer three games against the Yankees might provide.

Cal Ripken long had appreciated the beauty of nine innings, the value of 27 outs and the need to prepare for each day of a 162-game schedule. But as he dressed in the visitors' clubhouse May 5, he admitted his surgically repaired back was again squeezing him.

Anti-inflammatories were no longer an option, but a necessity. Nine innings now seemed a long time, and not just because in New York they often take longer than 3 1/2 hours.

It was on that night that the Orioles led 8-5 in the seventh inning after rallying from being down 3-0 and 5-3. Ripken homered in the second inning for the Orioles' first run. The Yankees tied the score at 8 in the seventh inning, prompting the Orioles to rally for a 10-8 lead in the eighth.

Then came the inning that stopped Ripken and his team in their tracks, the inning that Jorge Posada swung away against a bunt defense for a three-run homer off B.J. Ryan. The Orioles didn't know it then, but their season had begun to bleed.

Ripken had charged to within 50 feet of Posada when the right-handed batter turned on Ryan's pitch. Ripken, virtually defenseless, froze.

"If I had thought to jump and cover my eyes, I might have had a play," Ripken said half-jokingly the next day.

The Orioles dropped two of three in New York, then traveled to Toronto's artificial surface. Ripken played every game of the Blue Jays' sweep, but began to experience a burning sensation running down the left leg numbed for much of the past three years.

It was then that he expressed "disappointment" that surgery hadn't liberated him from the pain. He was scratched from a start against Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, arranged a visit with Cleveland orthopedist Dr. Henry Bohlman and began a journey that last week placed his remarkable career in question.

"I don't think Cal has any good days. I think some of his days are just tougher than others," observed one team member.

"He's been a yellow flag all year long," manager Mike Hargrove said as his third baseman left for Cleveland.

At 39, Ripken can see the end of his career. He has told friends he would like to play at least another season, but has received nothing but interference from his back.

"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," Ripken said then while describing the discomfort that has accompanied him most of the season. "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."

Ever since Ripken doubled over at first base Tuesday night in Boston, questions have been raised over whether this represents a dead end for him. His back may have hurt him more in 1997 and more persistently last season, but leaving the field with trainer Richie Bancells and Hargrove at his side offered a public confirmation of what he is experiencing.

Disabled for the third time in two years Wednesday, speculation mounts that Ripken will travel to the All-Star Game in Atlanta this month and announce his plans, possibly to retire at season's end. Associates deny it, insisting Ripken has barely had time to evaluate how long he will need before returning.

Regardless, Ripken admitted pondering "Plan B" last Sunday in Seattle. The context wasn't retirement, but rather a possible modification of his medication.

But the time has come for the organization to look to a Plan B of its own. As recently as last week, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said the club had not approached Ripken to inquire about his thoughts for the future.

Nor has the club approached him about a contract for 2001 should he wish to play. The waiver deadline arrives July 31, with the Orioles still scrambling to make themselves younger and faster. Such a conversation would seem central to their planning.

No one - not majority owner Peter Angelos, not Thrift, not Hargrove - will tell Ripken when to retire. Nor should they. His career has brought nothing but credit to a franchise that often has done little to bring credit to itself in recent years.

When his 39-year-old body allows, the man of 1,000 stances remains a productive offensive player willing to make tireless adjustments. Earlier last month, despite stiffness encroaching on his lower back and left leg in late innings, he was on pace for more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.

Three years ago, Ripken could eat the pain while initially denying its existence to those outside the clubhouse. Surgery has changed that. Ripken has shown himself a realist about a condition that will never improve until his playing career ends. He has discussed it frankly and in detail, modifying his pre-game routine to squeeze as much flexibility out of every game.

The Streak no longer rides Ripken's back. His 400th home run last September was a celebration and his 3,000th career hit likely the final statistical threshold for him to reach. Ripken's description of his health could also describe a glittering career.

"It is what it is."

It is time for the Orioles to ask one more question. And it is time for them to listen to Ripken's answer.

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