Jacobs, Lucchino dog it on Ripken

MIKE LITTWIN

May 24, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

In case you were worried, everything is going swimmingly for Orioles owner Eli Jacobs.

The team is averaging 43,000 paid fans at the new ballpark.

And the future Hall of Fame shortstop, Cal Ripken, is hitting .230. I'm guessing the only way life could be better for Jacobs is if Ripken were hitting .220, although he probably dreams late at night of a Ripken who hits .190. But that would be Bill Ripken, of course.

I hope you're not going to ask why the owner of the Orioles would be heartened by the hitting woes of his best player, because that would mean you haven't been paying attention.

As you must know, Cal Ripken's contract ends with the conclusion of this season, whereupon the Orioles must re-sign him or lose him. They've come up with a great cost-containment strategy. They're hoping the two-time MVP turns into a dog this year.

How else do you explain the Orioles' behavior?

Once the Orioles failed to sign Ripken during the off-season -- when, struck by their usual corporate paralysis, they apparently never even tried to get Ripken's name on a contract -- they were left with this single option: rooting against him.

The Orioles' thinking must be that if Ripken has a season much below last year's MVP numbers, his asking price would fall accordingly.

We should define "Orioles" at this point. Johnny Oates is not rooting for Ripken to have a bad year. Neither is anyone else in uniform. Neither are Roland Hemond, Frank Robinson nor Doug Melvin. The "Orioles" we're talking about here are Eli Jacobs and his junior partner, Larry Lucchino. If Ripken gets away -- and, folks, I have to say this, it's a real possibility -- Jacobs and, to a lesser degree, Lucchino would be the ones to blame.

These two are playing brinkmanship with the player who is generally recognized as the Orioles franchise.

What I'm hearing is that talks between the club and Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, have been virtually nonexistent. Which begs the question: Why?

The Orioles don't comment on such negotiations, sticking firmly to their principle that the public has no right to know anything they do. And Shapiro won't comment, either, but a source close to Shapiro says that the frustration level on the Ripken side is rising.

Are the Orioles willing to risk having these negotiations reach a danger point?

The stakes are pretty high. I don't know what Ripken is asking, but it's safe to assume his starting point would be where Ryne Sandberg left off, which is in the five-year, $35 million neighborhood. That's a nice place to live.

It's also a 1992 price. Ballplayer prices go only in one direction. If you're choking on that $35 million number -- as the Orioles must be -- here's the truth of the matter: If Ripken becomes a free agent, somebody will pay him that much or more.

What's funny, although not that funny when you think about it, is that the Orioles could have almost certainly had Ripken for a number in the five-year, $25 million neighborhood, also not a bad place to live, if they had tried to sign him in the MVP season, under the 1991 price guidelines.

But, you're saying, Ripken will stay. I can hear you now. He has to stay. He's Maryland's own. He's an institution. Well, so is The Block. So were the Colts.

There are no guarantees in this life. And loyalty, should I remind you, goes two ways. At this point, Ripken makes $2.4 million in a time when real .230 hitters make a million. There are 150 players who make more money than Cal Ripken, and yet he has never asked to renegotiate.

He has done the right thing. Now, will the Orioles?

The Orioles have the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball. And yet, with the millions streaming to Camden Yards, the Orioles can no longer claim to be a small-market team. Although they fall below the L.A. and New York teams and maybe a few others, they are well into the upper-middle range in terms of revenue and in the lower range in terms of payroll.

They are sitting on a gold mine -- a gift from the taxpayers, lest anyone forget.

And they've got this shortstop who plays every day and who, during a 10-year career, has more RBI than anyone else in the American League and who means just slightly more to Baltimore than, say, Eli Jacobs does. It isn't that they can't afford to keep Ripken. They can't afford not to.

I'm wondering when Ripken asks himself why the Orioles have put him and themselves into this predicament.

I'm wondering if it might get to a point where Ripken asks himself if it's worth the trouble to fight over a contract with the Orioles when so many other teams would come running with checkbooks wide-open if he were available.

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