April 05, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Whenever people ask him about his contract, which is often these days, Cal Ripken has a simple, favorite reply.

"There are two sides to baseball," he says, "the playing side and the business side. I try to take care of the playing side, and leave the business side to my advisers."

But the lyrics to the pop song "Takin' Care Of Business" probably best describe Ripken's approach when he's on the playing field:

Takin' care of business . . . every day.

Takin' care of business . . . every way.

Every day, every way, he gets the job done -- as well as anyone in baseball history who has played his position. Shortstop is considered one of the more demanding spots on the field, but, in the past 10 years, Ripken has established it as his personal stage with an amazing record of offensive and defensive consistency.

Every day. He has been on the job for 1,573 straight games, baseball's longest consecutive-game streak in more than a half-century and the second longest in history behind Lou Gehrig's 2,130. As points of emphasis, consider that Brooks Robinson's streak of 463 was the Orioles' previous record, and the 10th longest in baseball history is 798 by Nellie Fox.

Every way. He is one of only eight players, none of them shortstops, to hit 20 or more home runs in his first 10 full seasons. During that span, he leads all major-leaguers in extra-base hits (632) and is fourth in home runs (259) and runs batted in (942). He set all-time records by making only three errors and fielding .996 in 1990, and has posted three of the top 12 fielding percentages recorded by a shortstop.

When he signed out of Aberdeen High School in 1978, Ripken had a dream -- to emulate Brooks Robinson, who had retired the year before, and play his entire career with the Orioles. Had he been a product of Robinson's day, that would have been a given.

But, in the era of free agency, until the issue of the contract that expires after this season is resolved, there is a question. Will the Orioles be able to come up with numbers to match the ones Ripken already has put into the record books?

Perhaps more than any other player in the game, Ripken avoids discussing his contract status, preferring to concentrate on the side of the game he enjoys -- playing. The closest he comes to talking about his contract is to acknowledge the desire to finish his career where it started.

"In a purely idealistic situation, I think everybody would want that to happen," Ripken said. "Realistically, you have to be prepared for the fact that it might not."

Although his next contract almost certainly will make him, temporarily at least, the highest-paid player in baseball, Ripken will rank only third on his team this year. It doesn't take a financial genius to figure that his $2.367 million salary soon will be multiplied.

Ripken's contract status is sure to be a popular subject, but nobody worries about it affecting his play. Least of all manager John Oates.

"He's like a 12-year-old kid who happens to be very good," Oates said. "When I was 12 years old and playing Little League, I couldn't wait to put on my uniform.

"When we had a game, I'd wear my uniform to school. By the time I got to the field, I had mustard on my shirt and ketchup on my pants. I couldn't wait to play.

"And that's the way Cal comes to the park every day. He knows how to have fun, and he takes that enthusiasm on the field with him every game.

"He doesn't do it with a lot of flash. He doesn't run around high-fiving everybody. If he hits a home run, he goes around the bases like he doesn't want anybody to notice. He doesn't worry about contracts. He just plays the game."

Ripken's enthusiasm for the game is not the result of any conscious effort on his part. "I don't go out of my way to have fun -- I'm just happy to be out there. If that translates into enthusiasm . . . ."

He didn't have to finish the sentence. It's called doing what comes naturally (which is another song, but one his parents would remember).

Ripken will be in the starting lineup for his 11th Opening Day tomorrow, and he said this one will be different because of the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"As spring training winds down, you always find yourself looking ahead to the start of the season," he said just before leaving

Florida. "Before, we were always going back to Memorial Stadium, so you really didn't think that much about Opening Day.

"I'm kind of excited about seeing the new park, but it really hasn't set in yet. When we get there, and start playing, that's when it'll hit us."

As is his nature, Ripken is cautiously optimistic about the team the Orioles are bringing north. "Every year, no matter what, there is a certain level of optimism," he said.

"We're coming in with a pretty good nucleus. If we can stay away from injuries and get on a good roll, I think we can be competitive. How competitive remains to be seen.

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