The Baltimore Orioles expressed optimism today that third baseman Cal Ripken would be back in their lineup on Opening Day next season, ready, willing and able to continue his remarkable career and pursuit of 3,000 hits.

"With him having the surgery, he's hoping to eliminate the stints on the disabled list and resume his career," General Manager Frank Wren said. "What we've seen this season is a real solid, productive, veteran player, and that's what we believe Cal will be next season."

Ripken's 18th big league season ended abruptly this week when he was no longer able to tolerate back pain that forced him on to the disabled list twice earlier this year. Today, he underwent a 90-minute surgical procedure to relieve nerve irritation in his back. While declining to offer specifics, the Orioles said the surgery went routinely and that, barring complications, Ripken should be back on the field next spring.

Wren said he would construct the 2000 Orioles with the idea that Ripken, 39, will be back at third base, where he was as productive as ever when healthy this season. In a career-low 87 games, he hit a career-high .340 with 18 home runs and 57 RBI.

"Cal has not been performing like an old guy going for 3,000 hits," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said. "He's been performing like one of the best hitters in the game. At the same time, you look at his face now and then and see he's paying a price to play."

The Orioles announced in July they were picking up Ripken's $6.3 million option for the 2000 season. That decision was an easy one at a time when Ripken was playing as well as any time in his career. However, last April even Ripken wondered if this might be his last season. When he was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career, he was hitting .179. and making no effort to deflect talk of retirement. After rehabilitating his back injury and playing briefly with young prospects in the Florida State League, Ripken roared back, hitting .352 from mid-May until late July.

"He was a totally different player when he returned," Wren said.

Back pain forced a second trip to the disabled list in August, but when he returned, he was again at his best, hitting .365 in the 17 games before he departed on Wednesday. Hitting coach Terry Crowley, who had helped Ripken with his new stance, said Ripken was "pound for pound the strongest man in baseball." When a radar gun was used to measure bat speeds in a game at Atlanta earlier this season, Ripken's bat was the fastest on either team.

When Ripken returned from the disabled list a second time, he changed his stance a bit more, crouching dramatically at the plate to relieve pressure on the back.

Regardless of the stance, he continued to hit, and the Orioles began the countdown to 3,000 hits this week, before his season ended after his 2,991st on Tuesday. With Ripken sidelined, rookie Ryan Minor will become the starting third baseman.

"We thought it would be impossible for him to get his 3,000th hit this season, but he kept having three-hit games," Wren said. "Everyone was excited it might happen next week. The good news is that he should be 100 percent by opening day, and the first week of next season should be very exciting as he goes for 3,000 hits."

Several Orioles said they were aware that Ripken was playing despite pain, but most were caught by surprise on Wednesday when they learned he had left the club to fly to Cleveland to be examined.

"It's not unexpected with the struggles he's had this season," said center fielder Brady Anderson, Ripken's closest friend on the team. "I'm glad he's getting it fixed and will be able to play next year. He's proven that when he's healthy, his skills are as good as ever. He's probably relieved to have it done and get it over with."

Having won almost every award imaginable and having already guaranteed himself election to the Hall of Fame, Ripken has said he will play as long as he's physically able to perform at a high level. This season, he proved that he still has some baseball left in him.

"He could have quit five years ago and still been in the Hall of Fame," Orioles reliever Jesse Orosco said. "But he's playing better than ever. This probably has been the best stretch of his career."

Miller said he had noticed more and more in recent years how opposing players would watch Ripken as he took batting practice and prepared for a game. He said in watching Ripken closely, those opponents were giving him the highest compliment possible.

"There's not too many players in this sport who hold other players in awe," Miller said. "With Cal, I see it throughout baseball. It's pretty remarkable when your peers respect you that much."