Ripken may need to pick between Orioles, winning

JOHN EISENBERG

August 18, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Cal Ripken Jr. is going to need a new and very large contract by the start of the 1993 season, and there is an issue he must reconcile before he commits his future to any team: How important is it to him to have a chance to win another World Series? At least play on a contender?

Is it more important than playing with his brother and father? More important than playing in a city where he is unabashedly adored? More important than the alluring prospect of breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games streak without changing uniforms?

Those are questions he should ask himself with the Orioles finishing well out of the money this season for the seventh time in eight years, and with current ownership thus far innocent on charges of throwing cash at the problem.

Ripken naturally would cherish the chance to play for a contender, as any player would, and in a perfect world he could be assured of doing it here. But the world is far from perfect and the Orioles even farther, and the plain truth is that his chances of playing on a contender probably would be better elsewhere.

It is true turnarounds can come quickly and without foretelling, as the Orioles demonstrated in 1989. But let's face it, they're stuck in a strong losing sweep. They have a .487 winning percentage in the decade Ripken has started at shortstop. And the number is a glum .461 since the World Series win in 1983.

You know Ripken is tired of it. He is a 30-year-old whose competitiveness is the stuff of legend, who tries to win at everything from pickup basketball to taking as many stairs as possible in one step. You know the losses and long seasons have gotten old.

But old enough to make Ripken leave his family and local legend for a better chance to win another Series ring? Tough call. Very tough call. Money and family will be factors in his contract decision, and it's a good bet he'll wind up staying. But what about winning?

Crazy as it sounds, he doesn't have that much time. He will be 32 on Opening Day 1993, when his new contract would take effect, and thus will be 35 or 36 at the end of the contract, and near the end of his playing peak.

In other words: If he really is tired of losing, this free agency is his chance to do something about it. It is all up to him. There is no doubt a contender would offer him the cash should he show interest. The Yankees are one team that needs a shortstop and has the money to buy one. So do the Mets and the Blue Jays.

Some may think it sacrilege even to raise such a possibility, and, indeed, it is almost impossible to envision Ripken in another uniform. It would be a catastrophe for the Orioles, punching a huge hole in their lineup and wrecking any faith the fans had. The current attendance miracle would end instantly.

The Orioles obviously can't let that happen, and will offer Ripken a lot of money -- maybe not as much as some other team, but a lot -- to keep it from happening.

Money isn't the only reason the homeward pull will be strong. His career goal has long been to emulate Brooks Robinson, play his whole career here and go to the Hall of Fame. Should he, he would be a hero for life here, opening countless post-baseball possibilities, as it did for Robinson and Jim Palmer.

But let's be blunt. Maybe spending your entire career with the Orioles was a glorious thing in Robinson's and Palmer's day, but today it means spending your career with a team that has one of the majors' worst records since the mid-1980s.

It is not a unique predicament. The Milwaukee Brewers' fine hitter, Paul Molitor, who will turn 35 this week, recently mentioned that the constant losing was getting old, but that he was devoted to the franchise and didn't know what to do. His teammate Robin Yount, 35, said the same last year, and when his contract was up, he signed with the Brewers for less money than other teams offered.

You can see how it happens. Leaving here would make Ripken just another of the game's wandering millionaires, diminishing his reputation. But would that diminution be so terrible in exchange for a chance to play in a World Series?

Ripken did get his chance, of course, as Molitor and Yount did in 1982. Ripken played in the '83 Series, catching the last out, so if he never plays in another postseason game, he will not go into the books as the modern Ernie Banks as well as the modern Lou Gehrig.

And maybe that's enough. Maybe that one chance, combined with the other advantages of his remaining a lifelong Oriole, will be enough to keep him here. It certainly isn't wise to get greedy about such a precious commodity as postseason life.

But is that what he wants on his Hall of Fame plaque? That his accomplishments were executed primarily in dreadful surroundings? That, except for his first couple of seasons, he was the only bright, red brick in a scruffy, faded wall?

K? Obviously, that isn't what he wants. But what does he want?

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