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BASEBALL PLUS

Double Talk

Ripken, Orioles Seem to Have Different Takes On Future

September 10, 2000|TIM BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is a curious relationship between the Baltimore Orioles and the best player they ever had, Cal Ripken, who happens to be a generation's ballplayer.

He sat this weekend at the far end of the visitors' bench at Edison Field, at the far end of a career that might never be equaled, and he stretched his legs before him and shrugged in the face of his blurred future.

Utterly content in his life's path, Ripken, who made this life out of knowing exactly where he would be every night of every baseball season for 17 1/2 years, actually smiled at this moment of imprecision. Though 40 for about two weeks, his skin is taut and his eyes are bright and, as ever, the smile fit him.

He has no contract for next season. His back, which required surgery late last September, is not altogether sound. He recently missed nine weeks of baseball because of it, and only Friday played third base for the first time since.

Ripken runs somewhat gingerly, though he made a diving stop defensively and hit a ball to the warning track Friday.

He has determined that his desire to play is strong. He feels his skills are sound. He is waiting on his back. That is what September is for, he said, to test his stamina against 30 days of baseball and then decide, for sure, on next year, which would be his 21st as an Oriole.

That is where the sensible ends and the curious starts. Once a glorious player, Ripken remains at least a capable one--and surely a loyal one--for an organization that lacks both. And, still, Ripken wonders if the decision to play in Baltimore next season is entirely his.

"I don't have any idea," he said. "To me, that's something that's out of my control. My personal belief is that will take care of itself. Things have a way of working out that way.

"You have to go, logically, first things first. The things that I can control, that I can find out about, is the physical side, my desire, my skill level, the determination to stay ready and prepare. All of those things are under my control.

"If I decide that all those things are a go, the next step is to have a place to play. I don't make any assumptions that there's always a spot for me. I have to take a realistic view.

"If it turns out there's not a spot or not an opportunity in this uniform, then I have to make a decision as to if I still wanted to play. Then, look at it from the bigger picture.

"I don't know all the answers there and I don't want to waste time thinking about those. Things will happen the way they'll happen."

An hour later, Syd Thrift, the club's vice president/baseball operations, sat on the very same bench at Edison Field and scoffed at the notion the Orioles might not have Ripken back.

Ripken will play third base for the Orioles next season if he wants to. Thrift said so.

"I figure it will all be answered by Cal," Thrift said. "That's my answer. How he can do and what he can do? That's been the statement from the beginning, that's the statement today, it'll be the statement next week and next month. It's kind of simple, isn't it?"

It would be. Except that Ripken clearly doesn't know it. Recently, he even allowed speculation that he would consider playing elsewhere.

"I don't like to speak in hypotheticals," Ripken said. "But when someone asked a question hypothetically, I probably said something like, 'If I really, firmly believe I'm going to play and I have the ability to play and I don't have an opportunity here, I wouldn't rule out looking at my options.'

"I don't know what that is or what will happen. It stands to me, logically, if I really want to play and there's not a place to play here and somebody else wants me to play, then I would look at that, yes."

Thrift waved his hand as if to squash such blasphemy.

"He thinks he can play, he's sound to play baseball, he can play. Period," Thrift said. "Whoever heard of him playing anywhere else? That's absurd.

"He'll know. Above all, he wants to make sure for himself. He's the one who has to play."

A few days ago, Ripken passed the five-year anniversary of the day he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak. It came and went without much thought, with a few words for the reporters who remembered, and that was about it.

Then, he was the very symbol of strength and dependability. He has retained that, even through the surgery and the creaky back that might end his career before his skills do and even if the organization appears to have some question.

"I'm at a stage in my career where I look back and I'm very thankful I've had the career I've had," Ripken said. "I never expected it. I've had great experiences. I've enjoyed every second of it.

"What little time I have left, I'm going to try to enjoy that as well. Because of the injury, I'm in a position to appreciate just being on the field, being in that spot, contributing in maybe a little bit different way than I did.

"I'd still like to play every inning of every game, but that seems to be something of the past. You do what you can do, you pass on your information, you try to help when you can, and you try to compete.

"I'd like to compete. You're not given a gift at this level. You're doing it in front of everybody. If you can't compete, that automatically weeds you out.

"If you can compete, if the manager wants to put you in the lineup, and he wants you to play and help win a game, then I would. I will."

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