Three months ago it seemed inconceivable. Three weeks ago it seemed inevitable. And today it became official when the Baltimore Orioles announced they will pick up the option on Cal Ripken's contract for 2000.

The announcement came just three days before the deadline for the club to decide whether to bring Ripken back for $6.3 million next season, or decline and either negotiate a new deal or let him go.

Standing just a few feet away from the visitor's clubhouse at Veterans Stadium, where in 1983 Ripken and the Orioles celebrated a World Series title, Ripken said the contract was one more issue hanging over his head early this season, when he was also dealing with the death of his father and a back injury that forced him to go on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

"I don't like to think about the business side while the season is going on. . . . It was an uncomfortable situation," Ripken said. "But after I started getting myself back physically and got back mentally, the contract thing kind of took care of itself."

Ripken was hitting .179 when he went on the disabled list April 20. With the option issue still to be decided, the weeks following his return from the disabled list on May 13 essentially became a tryout, which Ripken aced. Entering tonight, he was hitting .332 with 12 homers since his return.

"I tried to keep those thoughts out of my mind," he said. "I didn't want to have to go into the first part of the season thinking about how I was going to be measured in the first half."

"There was not a lot of doubt" as to whether the club would exercise the option, said General Manager Frank Wren. "But from a business perspective, you have to evaluate. We were taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Anderson Sits

Center fielder Brady Anderson was not in the lineup tonight, after leaving Thursday's game with a strained hamstring. He lined out as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning.

Rich Amaral played center field and rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston moved into the leadoff spot for the first time, as the Orioles continue to take a close look at him.

"I like the live body and the quickness," said Manager Ray Miller. "He's the whole package."

CAPTION: Hall of Fame autograph signer Cal Ripken, who will turn 39 next month, will play for the Baltimore Orioles next season for a salary of $6.3 million.