The Baltimore Orioles are prepared to acknowledge Cal Ripken's remarkable 1999 season by exercising an option that will guarantee his $6.3 million salary for 2000. Team sources indicated a formal announcement could come Wednesday.

As part of Ripken's 1997 contract negotiations, the Orioles had the option of canceling the final year of the contract by exercising a $2.5 million buyout that would have allowed the franchise's cornerstone player to become a free agent.

Three months ago, as club officials watched Ripken struggle with the second serious back injury of his career, the Orioles were leaning strongly toward exercising the buyout, believing Ripken's career was almost over. Even Ripken acknowledged he didn't know how much baseball he had left in him.

Ripken has persuaded them otherwise during a two-month stretch that has re-established him as one of baseball's best players. A few months shy of his 39th birthday, Ripken is hitting .308 with 11 home runs and 34 RBI, and will make his 17th all-star appearance next week.

Since his first stay on the disabled list, Ripken has raised his average from .179 to .308. He is 56 hits away from 3,000 and five home runs shy of 400.

With both sides facing a deadline of next week on exercising the option, the Orioles will clear up the mystery with an announcement. The club's decision to exercise the option was first reported in today's Baltimore Sun.

As for Ripken, he said he won't decide whether to return for a 19th season until he finishes his 18th.

"I have to focus on my short-term goals," he said. "I don't want to look too far ahead."

However, he has consistently maintained that he will play as long as he's healthy and productive.

The clause was added to the contract when the Orioles insisted on a two-year deal while Ripken wanted a three-year contract. Agent Ron Shapiro and Ripken eventually agreed to the option that would make the three-year deal worth $18.9 million unless the Orioles exercised the buyout.

"It was a compromise," Ripken said. "The only thing about it is I don't like to have that sitting there as the season's going on. I'd rather do it before or after."

Ripken's day at the ballpark began early this afternoon when he appeared at an outdoor news conference with members of his family, including brother Bill and mother Vi, and officials of Babe Ruth League baseball.

The Babe Ruth League, one of the country's largest youth baseball associations, said its 12-and-under division will be re-named Cal Ripken Baseball. Until today, the 12-and-under division, which has around 471,000 players, had previously been known as the Bambino Division.

"It's a great honor," Ripken said. Referring to his dad, Cal Ripken Sr., who died last spring, Ripken Jr. said: "My dad dedicated his life to teaching baseball. He taught us to love the game and respect the game. Baseball is more popular than ever right now, and this is a chance to promote it and seed it. This is about continuing the game of baseball. We're very tickled and honored to be part of it."

CAPTION: Cal Ripken gets handshake from second baseman Jerry Hariston prior to game. During the game, the all-star third baseman went 1 for 4, leaving him 56 hits from 3,000.