Ripken deserves Orioles' thanks, and new contract


September 23, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The subject is Cal Ripken, and feel free to be amazed.

At the ripe, old age of 31 -- when his career seemed to be trapped in your basic deflationary spiral, dropping him with distressing speed from brilliant to great to simply very good -- Ripken is putting up the best numbers of his career.

With two weeks remaining in this season, he has hit the most homers of his life, tied his career high for extra-base hits, collected the most RBI since '85, totaled the most doubles since '83 and compiled the highest batting average ever.

And because no one has mentioned it for a while, I should add that The Streak has reached 1,560 games. Nobody mentions it anymore, because people usually bring up The Streak only to suggest that Ripken's numbers have been in steady decline because playing every day has worn him down. Since when did he get rested? It couldn't have been on those bus rides back in spring training.

The truth is that Ripken is -- and always has been -- an athletic marvel who cannot be measured by ordinary standards. It is September, when everyone's tired, and Ripken's season continues to be one extended wake-up call.

For the past few years, he had been in a slump, because, well, and I hope this isn't too technical, he had been in a slump. And he has recovered his stroke because, well, he has recovered his stroke. These are mysteries that are tied to technique, bent knees, confidence and probably alignment of the stars. In that alignment, by the way, Ripken is a star of stars and was ever thus.

He is headed to the Hall of Fame, and, of course, it's a given, that, like Brooks and Palmer, he's headed there as a lifetime Oriole.

Which means -- and I know you hoped I was getting to the point sooner or later -- that the Orioles had better get around to signing him to a contract. I suggest sooner as opposed to later.

His contract ends this season, but the Orioles have an option to extend it for a year. It is safe to predict they will accept that option. But, while doing so, they should tack on about four more years, even at the cost of -- God, it hurts just to write this -- something like $4.5 million a year, which is what shortstops like Cal Ripken would go for if there were any shortstops like Cal Ripken, which there are not.

The Orioles need Ripken. If for nothing else, they need him to divert attention from his teammates. That's how the past two seasons have gone. A year ago, we watched Ripken chase a record for fewest errors by a shortstop while the team fumbled its way into fifth place. This year, we got to watch Ripken pound the ball in the manner we remembered he could, even if those memories were starting to grow vague because they date back to the no-longer-so-recent glory days. And now the Orioles are in sixth place.

But, more important, on a team lacking in quality, Ripken provides a gold glove full (and, watch, he'll win the Gold Glove this year in what would be an obvious makeup call). Face it, in a group of generic ballplayers, Ripken is a brand-name import.

He's the player you start with. He's especially the player you start with when he turns in years like this one, hitting .323 with 30-plus homers and 40-plus doubles and 100-plus RBI. It's an MVP-type season. And, in fact, the last one he had like this, back in '83, he was the MVP and the Orioles won the World Series, too.

It's funny, but a lot of people predicted Ripken would improve at the plate this season because the Orioles acquired Glenn Davis to hit behind him. The theory was that, in the post-Eddie Murray days, the opposition could simply pitch around Ripken, forcing him to become less selective. So, Davis was supposed to help provide, along with 30 homers of his own, a new/old Ripken, or was that an old/new Ripken? Whichever, when Davis went down in April, people figured Ripken's batting average would follow.

It didn't, of course. Batting in front of Randy Milligan or Sam Horn or, for that matter, Joe Orsulak, Cal Ripken ripped the ball just like he was Cal Ripken.

You could only wonder what he might have done hitting in front of a healthy Davis. You think we could possibly find out next season?

If the Orioles don't sign Ripken, they put themselves in the position of rooting for their best player to have an off season. Otherwise, why not sign him now? That last year of a contract is a tough one, with million-dollar pressure facing you at each at-bat. Many players don't perform well under those circumstances. Maybe you recall Mickey Tettleton, who played his way out of town worrying about becoming a free agent at the end of last season.

Prices aren't going down. It's my experience as a consumer that they never do. The Orioles are going to make Ripken even richer than he already is someday, anyway. Why not now, when it says all the right things the Orioles should want to say?

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