BALTIMORE -- Beginning with his first at-bat on opening day this afternoon, Cal Ripken will be operating under the pressure of pursuing his 3,000th career hit.
That might turn out to be the easiest part of his 20th major league season. Ripken will likely get the nine hits needed to reach that milestone in April, which will leave him plenty of time to turn his attention toward a far more pressing goal: to stay healthy and duplicate the unprecedented offensive prowess he showed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1999.
Ripken hit .340 with a .584 slugging percentage last year, both career highs, but he twice was placed on the disabled list -- for the first time in his career -- because of back pain and played in only 86 games.
Returning from off-season back surgery, Ripken struggled offensively this exhibition season. But he remains confident that, despite turning 40 in August, he can continue to look as ageless as he did last summer.
"I think it's very possible. Last year proved to me that I still have the ability to become armed and dangerous at plate," he said. "I had very consistent power, hit to the opposite field and felt comfortable at the plate. I'd like to take that feeling into the box for 600 at-bats."
This has been a one-of-a-kind spring for Ripken, who rarely encountered any health problems while assembling his record-breaking string of playing in 2,632 games from 1982 to 1998. He had never spent time on the disabled list before last season and now is experiencing the unusual sensation of bouncing back from surgery.
"Sometimes I've been a bit overly cautious," Ripken said. "I'm not making excuses for the results, but I'm more concerned with some things I've taken for granted for years -- hitting the ground diving for a ball, sitting on the bench during a long inning, sliding into second base.
"It's been an adjustment. It seems to be going OK, but I'd like to get to the point where I don't have to think about it," he said.
He won't be able to avoid thinking about 3,000 hits on opening day, because the Orioles plan to post his hit total on the warehouse behind the stadium at Camden Yards. The warehouse was last used in that fashion in 1995 as he closed in on Lou Gehrig's record of playing in 2,130 games.
Ripken was a bit overwhelmed by the attention he received back then, and therefore would prefer to get his 3,000th hit as quickly as possible -- ideally, during the Orioles' six-game, season-opening homestand.
"The attention part of it changes the focus and changes your approach. I'd much rather try to diffuse things and operate in a normal environment," he said. "It's hard enough to play the game without adding extra things. I know there will be a sense of relief once I get nine hits, because then I can get back to a routine."
Only 23 players have 3,000 career hits. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove played 12 years and barely made it to the halfway point.
"I don't think the average fan really realizes how many hits 3,000 are," Hargrove said. "To get 3,000 hits you need a minimum of 10,000 at-bats. To get that many at-bats, you have to stay healthy, you have to play a long time, you have to have talent. I think it's one of the most difficult things in baseball to achieve."
Despite his back problems, Ripken has slowly worked his body into shape for the rigors of a 162-game season.
"He's showed me how strong he is. Obviously, he has a quick recovery time," Hargrove said. "He's gone through all the drills, not backed off any of them and led 99 percent of them in enthusiasm."
More and more this spring, Ripken has been questioned about retirement. His answer: It all depends on how he plays, and feels, this season.
"I'm enjoying the moment, however long it lasts," he said. "I know this much: I can't say this is my last year. You have to lay it on the line and find out what you can do, so I'm going to do that as long as I can. The retirement thing will take care of itself."
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