Give Cal his $35 million due Jacobs needs to get in line and sign 5-year check

Ken Rosenthal

January 30, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

It stands to reason that if Barry Larkin is worth $25.6 million and Bobby Bonilla $29.5 million, Cal Ripken deserves at least $30 million for five years.

The Orioles should make a pre-emptive strike to end any chance of Ripken's becoming a free agent after this season. But with this team, nothing ever resolves that smoothly.

Attention, Eli Jacobs: The salaries of baseball superstars keep rising, a trend that probably will continue even if the next national television contract provides less revenue.

For the Orioles to sign Ripken quickly, they must first offer the newly accepted length of contract for a top position player: five years.

Then they must offer a sum of money that will keep his salary among the game's highest even if he forgoes free agency: $35 million.

That's right, $35 million -- $7 million per year. Of course it's crazy. But $8 million per year would be even crazier, and that might be what Ripken commands on the open market.

Ridiculous?

So was Kirby Puckett at $3 million per year (1989). So was Jose Canseco at $4.7 million per year (1990). So was Bonilla at nearly $5.9 million per year (1991).

Yes, the atmosphere could change, if the TV money falls off dramatically, if the next labor negotiations result in revenue sharing. . . if, if, if.

Why not just plan on Ripken's having a bad year?

Just last week, the Cincinnati Reds took the dramatic step of signing Larkin -- a move especially notable because Marge Schott is perhaps the only baseball owner stingier than Jacobs.

The Larkin-Ripken parallels go far beyond the second syllable in their last names. Each is an All-Star shortstop for his hometown team, a pillar of the community whose loss would be considered disastrous for his franchise.

Larkin, like Ripken, was approaching free agency. The Reds did not want to risk his loss, and they gave him $100,000 more than the New York Yankees gave free agent Danny Tartabull.

"By our perception Larkin is a better player than Tartabull and arguably better than Bonilla," general manager Bob Quinn explained from Cincinnati on Tuesday.

"Our feeling was now was the time to get it done, rather than be in a lame-duck situation where in our opinion he would have gotten larger dollars after the '92 season."

Apply the same logic to Ripken, who has played nearly 1,000 more games and hit 201 more homers, and the dollars are even more staggering. The large-market teams keep raising the pay ceiling. Imagine what George Steinbrenner would do to get Ripken.

Larkin, 27, is four years younger, but despite a .294 career batting average to Ripken's .279, he hasn't accomplished nearly as much. In fact, his career-high RBI total (69) doesn't even equal Ripken's career-low (81), in part because he usually bats first or second.

The Reds are a small-market team, just like the Orioles. Yet Schott not only found a way to pay Larkin, she convinced him to sign by demonstrating her commitment to winning and backing Quinn in a series of moves that helped make Cincinnati the favorite in the NL West.

Jacobs, of course, has done no such thing, and he's the one anticipating record attendance in a new downtown stadium. His motives surely are a sticking point with Ripken, who has played on only one winning team in the past six years.

Unfortunately, you never know the whole story with Jacobs: Are the Orioles on such a tight budget because he borrowed heavily to buy the club? Because his other businesses are struggling? Because he wants to sell the team?

In Jacobs' defense, the Orioles aren't the only small-market club in this position. Texas faces a similar predicament as Ruben Sierra enters his free-agent year. Ditto for Minnesota and Puckett.

"We have initiated talks," Twins GM Andy MacPhail said. "We have not tried to negotiate on any pretense other than Kirby Puckett is an extraordinary ballplayer and extraordinary person who has an extraordinary impact on the Minnesota Twins.

"We don't pretend to diminish anything he does or is. With us, it's just a matter of what percentage of our payroll can we devote to one player, and more important, how long do you get tied up with one player and reduce your flexibility with others?"

It's a legitimate question: MacPhail said if the Twins re-signed pitcher Jack Morris and then Puckett, it would have meant paying those two and first baseman Kent Hrbek approximately $13 million in 1993. His budget then would have included only $12-13 million for 22 other players.

MacPhail doesn't believe the present salary escalation can continue, but he also thought that last year. The fact is, the Twins must keep Puckett, just as the Orioles must keep Ripken. If it means keeping other players at low salaries, so be it.

Hollywood works under such a star system, and that may be where baseball is heading. In any case, Jacobs isn't going to escape. He must commit tens of millions for Ripken, and history says he's better off doing it now than later.

Why fool around?

Out with the checkbook, Eli.

Out with it now.

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