Where will Cal spend next 10 years? Contract talks will decide if Ripken stays with Orioles

August 10, 1991|By Mark Hyman

Happy anniversary, Cal.

It may not seem like it to fans who remember when the Baltimore Orioles shortstop was Luis Aparicio in the 1960s or even Billy Hunter in the '50s. Still, the Orioles media guide does not lie. On the bottom of page 206, right there in black and orange, it reveals this morsel of Orioles history: Ten years ago, Cal Ripken made his debut as a major-leaguer.

He did not homer in his first game. He didn't even bat. On Aug. 10, 1981, Ripken entered his first major-league game as a pinch runner, trotting to second base in place of Ken Singleton, then scoring easily on a John Lowenstein double.

A decade later, Ripken's place in team history has expanded a bit. By most standards, he is the quintessential Oriole, with a list of accomplishments as long as last week's ticket lines at the Memorial Stadium box office.

So much for the first decade. Let's consider the next 10 years. Join us for a journey into baseball's fifth dimension, where predictions are made and promptly forgotten because they are so often wrong.

Picture this: It is 2001. Ripken is 40 years old. He is still batting third and still playing every day. He is officially bald.

The vital question: Is Cal still an Oriole?

This is one game Ripken himself won't play. "No idea," he said last week when asked to peer 10 years into his future.

Or how about this: Will he be an Oriole when his contract expires after the 1992 season?

Few Orioles fans allow themselves to contemplate their team without Ripken, probably for the same reason some people don't go to horror movies. They see Ripken as linked inextricably to the team by his father, the coach; his brother, the second baseman; and a life spent living in Maryland and growing up with the Orioles.

But are they right?

There may be a helpful clue dropped this winter if the Orioles and Ripken's attorney sit down to discuss a contract, a development that Ron Shapiro, a Baltimore lawyer and Ripken's agent, said he would not oppose.

"We're not strident," Shapiro said. "If the club wants to talk to us, we'll talk."

The Orioles say even less.

"Our policy is not to negotiate a players' contract status in the newspaper," said Orioles president Larry Lucchino.

The negotiation will be mostly about dollars. Ripken will earn million this season, which makes him baseball's highest-paid shortstop. But, even at that, there are reasons to consider him underpaid, maybe grossly so.

Ripken's last contract was negotiated in 1987, during a time when an arbitrator has found that baseball owners colluded to restrict movement of free agents. Ripken didn't directly feel the stiff arm of collusion -- he re-signed with the Orioles before he could have filed for free agency -- but Shapiro contends that his client "probably would have been a $5 million, certainly a $4 million player" if the market had been free.

The proof is in the latest batch of free-agent contracts. With the shackles of collusion off, owners went wild the past off-season, and so did the top salaries. The Boston Red Sox were the first to pass the $5 million mark, signing right-hander Roger Clemens to a four-year deal worth an average of $5.4 million. Other recent contract signings that dwarf Ripken's include the New York Mets' Dwight Gooden ($5.2 million), the Pittsburgh Pirates' Andy Van Slyke ($4.2 million) and the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn ($4.1 million).

Will Ripken demand comparable wages of the Orioles?

The shortstop said he has not thought about it and won't until after the season. "It's only a distraction," he said of contract talk.

But he added: "I am human. Every once in a while, you are driving to the ballpark. You hear something on the radio about someone signing here or there. All of a sudden, it starts you thinking about your contract. 'I have one more year. What am I going to do?' But, immediately, you say, 'It doesn't matter now. Don't think about it.' "

Shapiro said repeatedly during an interview that Ripken speaks for himself. Then the attorney offered what sounded suspiciously like an early bargaining position. "From my point of view, Cal deserves to be the highest-paid player in the game," he said.

Could baseball's richest player ever work for the Orioles, a team that ranks 25th in major-league salaries? (Only the Houston Astros' payroll is less.) On the other hand, Ripken is, in some ways, a special case -- a star player who delivers for the team on the field and in the clubhouse with a work ethic that inspires impressionable young players. Ripken is a star even at Memorial Stadium novelty stands. Just try to find an Orioles item without his signature, likeness or number.

"He is the franchise," said Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller. "He is the centerpiece. Not only is he the best [Orioles] player, but he's the best practice player, the best spring-training player and the best pre-game drills player."

Said Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson, who is a partner in the group that represents Ripken, "He is the franchise."

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