Cal got his price, but cost of season wasn't worth it

Ken Rosenthal

August 25, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

The difference in the contract Cal Ripken signed last night and the offer he rejected in spring training was $500,000 -- or 1/61st the total value of his $30.5 million package.

That's a piddling amount considering the damage to his season. The question Ripken ultimately must answer for himself is whether the prolonged negotiations were worth it.

At this point, his answer seems to be "no," a self-indictment if ever there was one. But in Ripken's defense, so much changed in five months.

He went from a player coming off his best season to a player struggling through his worst -- and at the same time, negotiated a better deal through his agent, Ron Shapiro.

Indeed, the club's five-year, $30 million offer in March was substantially different from the five-year, $30.5 million contract Ripken signed at 6:50 last night.

The rejected proposal did not include the offer of a front-office job to Ripken -- a job that could pay him another $2 million over four years after he retires.

Nor did it include a signing bonus of $3 million -- a critical point if an owners' lockout occurs in either of the next two years.

The signing bonus is money protected against a lockout. Ripken will earn $4.5 million in 1993 and $4.8 million in '94, but only if there is baseball.

A lockout is possible next year, if the owners exercise an option to reopen negotiations for a new basic agreement. But it's more likely the year after, when the actual agreement expires.

Ripken gets his $3 million either way, over the next two years. That's a significant detail, for his bonus in the club's spring training proposal was believed to be $1 million.

Add on the final $500,000, and the swing could amount to $4.5 million -- with Ripken preserving the right to become a free agent after three years, a clause that was agreed upon in March.

All this took negotiating, but Ripken grew so distracted, it might have ruined his season, and indirectly the Orioles' season too.

Ripken has gone a career-high 56 games without a home run, and his .245 batting average, 10 homers and 56 RBI all project to the lowest totals of his 11-year career.

"My only regret obviously is that if I had to do it all over again, I would have done it different," Ripken said after going 0-for-4 in last night's 5-2 loss to California.

"I don't know if I would have signed in spring training or postponed it until the end of the season. But I would have done one of the two."

So, did he blow it?

In retrospect, yes. But again, so much changed.

In spring training, Ripken figured to command at least $35 million on the open market, and possibly even $40 million. At the time, he and Shapiro surely considered a $30 million offer low.

Call it greed -- even then, the Orioles were proposing the largest guaranteed contract in baseball history -- but few of us in the same position would ignore a possible $10 million.

Lest we forget, Ripken also has been dramatically underpaid by market standards during the four years of his current contract, a contract signed in the collusion era, a contract worth a total of $8.4 million.

Thus, the idea of getting fair market value as a free agent intrigued him. Either way, it was a gamble. He could forfeit millions by signing early. Or he could forfeit millions with an off-year.

It turned out the latter.

The Orioles no doubt were relieved to save $5-$10 million, but with a prohibitive offer at the outset of negotiations last Sept. 26, they might find themselves in first place today.

Ripken's value was never higher than at the end of last season, but what if the club had proposed $30 million then? Bobby Bonilla had yet to sign the $29 million contract that made him -- at that time -- the highest-paid player in the game.

Now, nearly a year later, Ripken finally holds that distinction, at least until Barry Bonds or Kirby Puckett enters the free-agent market.

Was it worth it?

Only at the negotiating table.

Not in Cal Ripken's heart.

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