Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Rust Is Showing Baseball's Iron Man Heading into 21st Season

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Rust Is Showing Baseball's Iron Man Heading into 21st Season

Article excerpt

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Cal Ripken knows the end of his career is rapidly approaching.

It could come in October, or maybe in 2002. The Iron Man has even envisioned a scenario in which he walks away from the game in the middle of this season.

Ripken began his 21st spring training yesterday with a hairline fracture in his right ribcage, but he still donned a uniform and participated in running and throwing drills. Although he can't hit or field grounders for at least a couple of weeks, the Baltimore Orioles' third baseman is certain he will be in the opening day lineup.

"I want to make sure it heals, but I'm not worried one bit that I won't be ready for the season," he said.

The 40-year-old Ripken isn't nearly as sure how long he will continue playing baseball. Bothered by lower back pain, he participated in only 86 games in 1999 and 83 last season.

After missing 59 games last summer, he came back in September and hit .307 with two homers and 13 RBIs over the final month. That convinced him to return for at least another season, one he concedes could be his last.

"I look at it as every year might be my last," he said. "You reach a point in your career where reality is reality. You can't play forever. What makes you decide from year to year whether you can play is what happens that year."

Ripken said that if he did not feel good last September, or if he played poorly, "I would probably be retired right now."

There are no guarantees that his back won't flare up in May, or his bat won't catch fire at all. With that in mind, Ripken conceded, "I'm not ruling out the idea that some point this season that it will be too hard, that I don't want to do it and I'm ready to leave."

Ripken worked hard during the offseason. He lifted weights, ran and played basketball up to five times a week. For the first time in years, he didn't worry about going easy to spare the strain on his back.

"Hopefully, that's behind me," he said. …

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