For Cal to hit jackpot, club must make pitch


March 08, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- I know it's the weekend and your brain is on hold till tomorrow, but I need to get philosophical with you for just a moment. So, please, play along.

What we've got here are a pair of apparently irreconcilable truisms banging against one another. And before we're done, we must reconcile them.

Here goes.

Truism No. 1: The Orioles could never, ever, not even in their worst dreams, imagine letting Cal Ripken go.

Truism No. 2: The Orioles could never, ever -- and this is their

worst dream -- imagine themselves paying Cal Ripken what it will take to get him to stay.

What to do?

First of all, let's figure out how the Orioles got themselves in this mess.

That's the easy part. They did it the usual way, which is by means of corporate paralysis. Ever cautious, which is to say ever afraid to do anything, they did nothing. It wasn't like the matter of re-signing Ripken sneaked up on them. He's now in his option year, after which he is eligible to become a free agent. The Orioles knew they wanted to sign him, and they knew that Ripken wanted to be signed.

But, when it should have been obvious that a pre-emptive strike was the best strategy, they waited until the market set the final figure.

That came when the Cubs signed Ryne Sandberg to a contract supposedly worth $7 million a year, but is actually a measly 6-point-something. Ripken now will get the $7 million. Or will it be $8 million? Nine million?

Who should get more?

What player means more to his franchise than Cal Ripken to the Orioles?

What I'm trying to say is that the Orioles blew it. I ran this scenario past several people reasonably close to Ripken: If, before the Bobby Bonilla signing, the Orioles had offered Ripken $25 million over five years, what would he have done?

Each person said the same thing. He would have grabbed it.

If the Orioles had been smart, they would have set the standard. Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, allowed that to happen in a comparable situation with a comparable client, Kirby Puckett. When Puckett opened the off-season bidding by accepting a $3 million-a-year contract a few years back, Shapiro told him everyone would use that figure as a springboard. Puckett didn't mind. It was the biggest number at the time, and it allowed him to stay in Minneapolis.

But because the Orioles couldn't imagine paying Ripken $5 million a year, they may have to pay him $7 million. Or $8 million.

Or did the Orioles try to do something earlier? If so, they're not saying. Of course, the Orioles' front office never does. But I do know Shapiro said last November he was still awaiting a call from the Orioles.

Right now, Ripken is making $2.1 million. That makes him, in the overheated baseball market, a bargain. I know, your idea of a bargain -- and mine, too -- is when a six-pack of Diet Coke is marked down to $1.79, but when the average player makes $1 million, then Cal Ripken can't make just $2 million.

Ripken, to his credit, has never complained about his contract. He never tried to renegotiate. All he did, say last year, was go out and win himself an MVP award. When his manager was asked where the sixth-place Orioles might have finished without him, John Oates said eighth. That's in a seven-team division, of course.

OK, the Orioles blew it. They blew it big time. Now what?

With low-intensity negotiations now apparently under way, would Cal Ripken settle for less than the going rate? Should he? I mean, the difference -- and I'm only imagining here -- between $5 million and $7 million can't be very important. Five million a year is going to keep you in gas money.

On the other hand, why should Ripken have to settle? Why shouldn't he get what the market pays?

And the thing is, the Orioles can afford it. More than that, they can't afford not to sign him. Let's try to cost it out. The Orioles are going to draw more than three million fans this season. Say the euphoria of a new stadium lasts one more year, even without Ripken. But, in two years, if Ripken is gone and the team is still bad, it isn't hard to envision a drop of 10,000 fans a game. If the average ticket is $10, that's $100,000 a game or $8.1 million over a season. And that doesn't even begin to factor in concessions -- at a loss of several more million -- and lower ratings on local TV and radio, etc.

The truth is that it would probably cost the Orioles more not to sign Ripken, and that doesn't include psychic costs. And if you think the asking price is absurd -- it is -- just ask yourself whether you'd want the money in Cal Ripken's hands or in Eli Jacobs'?

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