The fire in his lower back and left leg nearly extinguished, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken will watch tonight's All-Star Game on television while awaiting his return to the lineup. On the disabled list for the third time in two seasons with nerve irritation in his back, the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer said persistent speculation over his retirement is unfounded.
"I want to put the uniform back on and see what happens," Ripken said yesterday afternoon during an extended interview.
Maintaining that his absence from tonight's game in Atlanta represents his commitment to a rapid return rather than an intensifying condition, Ripken said he hopes to resume baseball-related activities this week for the first time since what he described as "lightning and fire" coursed through his left leg and lower back during the 10th inning of a June 27 game in Boston.
"I want to play as much of the second half as I possibly can," he said. "In a weird way, it's three bonus days that don't count against your season."
For the first time since 1983, Major League Baseball will hold its midsummer celebration without Ripken.
Though voted into the American League starting lineup by fans for a 12th consecutive season, Ripken plans to watch tonight's game with his son, Ryan - what he calls a "silver lining" to missing a tradition he considers both an obligation and an honor.
Ripken also declined to participate in the attendant festivities or sit on the bench in uniform, citing his desire to return as quickly as possible to the Orioles' clubhouse.
A two-week absence from the team has "been eating me alive," he added. "But the symptoms and the necessity for me to rest ... make it much better to lay back and get off your feet as much as possible rather than being on the road or at the ballpark."
Ripken said he hopes to greet his teammates before Thursday's opener to the second half. Depending on his back's mood, he may swing a bat or throw a ball. And barring a setback, the third baseman said he hopes to leave the disabled list in time for next week's three-game series against the Florida Marlins.
"I don't know how I'm going to feel two or three days from now," he said. "I hope the trend continues and by Thursday, when I report, I'll be free of pain and do some baseball things."
Ripken said he hasn't taken pain medication for the past four days. He remains on anti-inflammatory medications, but no longer grimaces when he sits or stands. What initially was only grudging improvement has accelerated since late last week.
"I've been told my moods are a little better these days, and that stems from my movement and my heightened sense of optimism," he said. "I'm moving around a little bit. I think if today was the seventh game of the World Series, I'd be starting."
Instead, Ripken said he will hold to a cautious course. A refusal to move to the disabled list after a May flare-up was probably a mistake, he conceded. But he also insisted the lengthier time away does not imply a more serious problem. He is confident his 12-game absence has not affected that which allowed him to hit .239 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs despite persistent pain.
"It's all about pain right now," Ripken said. "It doesn't affect my ability to catch, throw or hit the ball. Would there be a little bit of rustiness? If I'm gone a month or more, then it becomes an issue. I'm really not worried about that."
Ripken said last Friday's three-dimensional CT scan taken at Johns Hopkins Hospital revealed nothing new. Cleveland orthopedist Dr. Henry Bohlman reviewed the findings and spoke with Ripken, who had been leaning against playing in the All-Star Game since last Thursday.
Bohlman's initial diagnosis was confirmed: an inflamed nerve root in his lower back - possibly caused by a lingering fragment from last September's surgery to alleviate stenosis in the same region - was responsible for the searing sensation through the player's left leg, especially along its outside and below the knee. The decision not to play became academic.
After confirming his decision not to play, Ripken notified team and Major League Baseball officials on Saturday before speaking with New York Yankees manager Joe Torre on Sunday. Torre fretted last week over the possibility of Ripken aggravating his condition while playing three innings.
"I told him I wouldn't put him or myself in that position," Ripken said. "The injury occurred at a certain time and I had a certain optimism of it healing. I had to evaluate it day by day. ... I know I was clinging to a small ray of hope that it would come really fast."
Ripken said he began experienced increased discomfort after playing a day game after a night game in Oakland on June 20. Wrapped in ice from hip to ankle in Seattle, Ripken tried to play through the discomfort until the Boston incident nearly immobilized him.
"It was difficult to walk around and difficult to sleep," he said. "It's pretty amazing how I feel now compared to how I felt in Boston."
Slight irritation remains, added Ripken, but "I don't feel the fire burning constantly." Hopeful of resuming baseball-related activities by Thursday, Ripken continues to spend much of his day ready and sitting in a reclined position. Sitting and standing for extended periods is discouraged.
Ripken voiced disappointment over missing tonight's game and festivities, but believed the excitement surrounding the gala would lead him to jeopardize a rehabilitation based on rest.
"I know I'd feel a sense of guilt about not being able to play in the game and try to make up for it in other ways," said the two-time Most Valuable Player, who won't attend the game for the first time since 1982, his rookie season.
"It's not a good thing for me to be on my feet. I don't want to do anything to set me back in the next four days."