Time to sign Ripken, dream player for field of dreams

MIKE LITTWIN

November 20, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

I went to see Cal Ripken, but I couldn't take my eyes off Camden Yards (that's what I'm calling the new stadium, so there).

The Orioles made the wise choice to hold Ripken's MVP news conference at the nearly completed downtown ballyard on a balmy November night, introducing Cal to the stadium and the stadium to Cal. They will come to know each other well.

On this night, with three banks of lights illuminating the place, you couldn't tell whether the glow was entirely artificial or partly derived from some other, less tangible power source. I'll tell you this: The stadium stole the show. Somebody said it was breathtaking, and I couldn't argue.

You've seen the design. You've seen pictures. Wait till you see the real thing. Believe me, you will love it.

Ripken looked completely natural there, as he does in any ballpark. After answering the usual questions -- "It feels great" was the usual answer -- he went out to shortstop for a photo op, which at least wasn't as hokey as the milk-in-a-champagne-glass toast they had for him, like he really drinks the stuff. But he does own the shortstop position. In fact, Ripken owns it so thoroughly that he became the first American League MVP to win the award while playing for a losing team.

He also -- and I looked this up -- was the first MVP not to say even once, "I want to share this award with my teammates." It isn't that Ripken isn't a team player; it's the team he's playing on. If Cal Ripken was the MVP of the league and the best player in the whole wide Western world, how bad must the rest of the Orioles be to lose 95 games?

When asked about it the other day, manager John Oates said the Orioles, who finished sixth in a seven-team division, would have finished eighth without Ripken. That's an optimistic view. Without him, they might have finished in the Carolina League.

This statistic about players on losing teams failing to win the MVP is not simply a function of obscure voting patterns. Clearly, teams as bad as the Orioles rarely feature players as good as Cal Ripken, who, with this season, all but formally clinched a spot in Cooperstown.

When Larry Lucchino, team president and CEO, introduced Ripken last night, he said something about hoping Ripken, like Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer before him, would spend his entire career as an Oriole.

Never does this seem more appropriate or more important.

They have this beautiful new stadium, and now the Orioles need a team to match. That team begins, of course, with Ripken, who is entering an option season. The Orioles would be crazy to let him begin the season without having signed a four-year contract extension at whatever the market bears -- and it will be a bear.

As expected, the Orioles have been closed-mouthed on the possibility of negotiations. Lucchino, for whom tight-lipped is the standing description, said: "Let me say that tonight is a night for celebration. I'm not crazy enough to think tonight is a good time to begin talking about his contract."

Ron Shapiro, who represents Ripken and nearly everybody else important in Baltimore, said they are awaiting word from the Orioles.

"If the Orioles approach us," he was saying, "we'll talk to them. If they don't, Cal will go about his business. What you can be sure of is that he'll do nothing that will interfere with his responsibilities to the team."

Ripken is a team player. At a time when 378 players make at least a million dollars, Ripken makes $2.5 million. In a contract negotiated during the years of collusion, Ripken is seriously underpaid, and yet he has never once publicly complained. That is not his style. He isn't the kind who steps up to say he won't play for one penny less than Glenn Davis is getting. If the Orioles are forced to pay Ripken $5 million a year to keep him, they can find some solace in the notion that they've gotten him on the cheap for at least the last two seasons.

The question is: Why wait? The lesson of the non-collusionary marketplace is that the sooner you sign someone, the less it costs. The Orioles should be out trying to set their own price, not responding to what Bobby Bonilla gets from, say, the Mets. Who, right at this moment, is worth more than Ripken?

In this season, Ripken rediscovered the promise he made to himself and the greater baseball world at the plate back in 1983, his first MVP season. In the past few years, his numbers have suffered, and some have wanted to blame the Streak, although it's hard to argue that point now. He doesn't have the answer to how he regained his stroke, except to credit hard work and what he called magic, but there is reason to believe he may have regained it for the near future. And the thing about Ripken is that even in his bad years he's still among the best players in the game.

If I've said this before, it's no less valid, but if the Orioles don't sign him in the off-season, they put themselves in the position of rooting for their best player to have an off season. Is that a good gamble? If Ripken has a poor season -- and the pressure of playing in the last year of a contract can affect anyone -- the team loses. And if he matches 1991, Ripken has the opportunity to redefine the game's wacky pay scale.

The Orioles know they have to keep Ripken -- and, eventually, they will. They kept Davis. They're looking for a free-agent pitcher. Signing Ripken is all part of the same design that the Orioles need to put together if the product is to find a way to compete with the package.

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