Unburdened Cal could buck slump

MIKE LITTWIN

August 24, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you can believe what you read in the newspapers -- and quite often you can -- a great burden is about to be lifted from Cal Ripken's shoulders.

So, now, the theory goes, once an unburdened Ripken has signed a multi-year, multi-multimillion-dollar contract, there will be room on those uncommonly broad shoulders to carry the Orioles.

There's history to suggest this could happen. Back in July 1988, when he signed his last contract, Ripken hit seven homers in his next 17 games. He should do even better this time, if you adjust for inflation.

Any homers would represent a significant change, given that he has hit exactly none in his past 55 games. I think you can safely call that a trend.

To support what baseball scholars call the burden-replacement theory, however, you must first believe that contract worries were the source of Ripken's batting slump.

(Is slump a good enough word? In the stock market, they favor crash to cover like situations.)

Anyway, let's try to put ourselves in Cal Ripken's position, and I don't mean his batting stance du jour. Your contract is up at the end of the season, and you don't know whether, for the next five years, you're going to make $6 million a year or $8 million a year. This happens to you all the time, right? You could see how this kind of pressure would take you from Living Legend one season to a .240 hitter the next.

I mean, you try to get by on $6 million these days. After carfare and groceries and your subscription to the Wall Street Journal, you're down to -- what? -- maybe $5.95 million for extras.

OK, it's slightly more complicated than that. Ripken wasn't certain he could stay in Baltimore, where he hopes to finish his career, or be faced with the free-agent market, meaning he could end up in, say, Cleveland. How much money would they have to pay you to live in Cleveland? And there is the idea that maybe the Orioles, after all he'd done for them, didn't love him anymore. Why else were they making his life miserable?

Among those who believe the negotiations were a burden is Ripken himself. He admitted recently for the first time that the uncertainty surrounding his contract status has affected his ability to concentrate. Or maybe he hopes that's what it is. There has to be some explanation.

But let's run with the you-can't-hit- a-curveball-when-your-mind-is-inside- a-brief theory.

That would mean, of course, that the Orioles have blown it.

First, I should say that it's nice to see the Orioles apparently have bitten this scud-sized bullet and signed Ripken. Whatever anyone says, and whatever Ripken happens to be batting, the Orioles had to do this.

But since they knew they had to sign him, why mess with the mind of your best player in the process?

If Ripken is having any kind of year -- well, any kind of year other than this one -- the Orioles are in first place, and how much would that be worth to the owner? Let's say Eli Jacobs has saved himself $5 million to $8 million over the next five years on Ripken's contract because Ripken buckled under the pressure. Is that a good trade-off?

Actually, I don't think that's what happened. I think the Orioles' front office was simply in its usual state of paralysis. Nobody in there correctly anticipated the market. Instead of signing Ripken before or during last season, in what was an option year, the Orioles just waited to see what would happen. Now, they know.

Or do they?

You can make the argument that the negotiations are incidental to Ripken's problems.

Of 12 American League shortstops with 250 or more at-bats, he ranks 11th in batting average. That can't all be traced to a troubled contract negotiation, can it?

You decide.

In Toronto, Joe Carter is in the last year of his contract, and he's having a great season. Teammate Jimmy Key, also in his last year, is having a terrible season.

Wade Boggs, another potential free agent, is hitting .266, which is just above, for him, unimaginable.

Ruben Sierra is having a season not much better than Ripken's.

And then there's Kirby Puckett, who recently cut off negotiations with the Twins and yet is having a typical Puckett season.

There's also Ripken. If he's about to sign, he must have known that for a few days. During the past three, while batting in the No. 5 hole, he's 1-for-11.

I know this: When a player has a good season in the face of free agency, everyone calls it a salary drive. And when a player doesn't, people say it's the pressure.

We'll never know. But if Ripken hits seven homers in the next 17 games, we could have some fun speculating.

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