Almost no one caught Cal Ripken smiling throughout July and deep into August. His slump kept getting worse and he was beginning to think that his contract negotiations might never end.
Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, and Orioles president Larry Lucchino had held their first meeting to discuss a new contract on Sept. 26, 1991, even before Ripken's MVP season had concluded. Both men knew that this would not be an easy or a brief negotiation.
They were right. In all, it would take 333 days to produce a signed contract.
Shapiro and Lucchino were an odd and interesting couple. Lucchino was 44, a lawyer who had gotten involved with the Orioles through his friendship and business partnership with Edward Bennett Williams.
It was Lucchino who had convinced Eli Jacobs to buy the team from Williams' widow after Williams' death, and the Orioles had become the most important thing in his life. He had beaten cancer several years earlier. One of his closest friends during that trying period in his life was Shapiro.
Shapiro was 49, a one-time boy wonder who had been the secretary of Maryland's Securities and Exchange Commission when he was 29. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he'd been brought into the business of representing athletes in 1976 when the Orioles asked him to take over Brooks Robinson's failing finances. Once Shapiro had gotten Robinson on his feet, he started to represent other Orioles. By the early 1980s he was representing almost the entire team.
He never had a client list larger than 30 or so players, but most of his clients did very well. In 1992, he would negotiate a new deal not only for Ripken, but for Kirby Puckett. Shapiro felt strongly that both men should stay where they were since each was an icon in the city where he played. But he also knew that to get them top dollar he had to convince their teams that they were willing to go elsewhere if the money put on the table wasn't
Lucchino's first offer was a long way from acceptable: two years for $10 million. Shapiro's counter was fairly predictable: He wanted five years at $39 million. The two men began only three years and $29 million apart.
"You have to understand where we were coming from at the beginning," Shapiro said. "Cal was coming off an MVP year and it wasn't unreasonable to think that the market at the end of the 1992 season for someone at that level would be in the neighborhood I was in."
Lucchino didn't see it quite that way. He wanted to talk not about what MVPs were making but about what shortstops were making. On Feb. 6, he upped his offer to four years at $20 million, double the original numbers but well shy of what Shapiro and Ripken were thinking.
Two weeks later, Lucchino made his first unusual move. He wrote a letter directly to Ripken and his wife Kelly -- three pages, single-spaced -- pointing out not only how much the Orioles wanted to keep him with the team but that the offer on the table would make him the highest-paid shortstop in baseball. Shapiro, after seeing the letter, came down to $38 million.
Ripken went to spring training confused. Where did he stand with the Orioles? Did they really want to sign him? Were they willing to gamble on him becoming a free agent? Were they secretly hoping that his numbers would come down in 1992, thus allowing them to sign him for less money? He wanted to stay in Baltimore, but he wanted to feel as if the Orioles wanted him to stay.
On March 6, as the Orioles were playing their first exhibition game, Lucchino entered the financial reality of the '90s. He began a letter to Shapiro by saying he found it "puzzling and surprising that our first offer was inadequate." But, he added, the Orioles were now prepared "to make Cal the first $6 million man in the game." (Many clubs consider Ryne Sandberg's contract to be worth only $5.8 million a year.) The offer on the table was up to $30 million for five years.
"Now," said Shapiro, "we were beginning to come together."
But they were a long way from signing anything. Shapiro came down in his counter to $36 million, but made it clear that neither he nor Ripken would move very far off that figure for a while. In the meantime, Shapiro had opened negotiations with the Twins for Puckett. He was both impressed and somewhat amused at their first meeting when general manager Andy MacPhail handed him a booklet with a picture of Puckett on the cover along with the caption "The Best in the Game." Inside was an analysis of Puckett's career and his value to the Twins.
"They conceded right off the bat that Kirby was the best," Shapiro said. "What was amusing was that in their statistical analysis, Cal actually was better than Kirby. But the Twins still said Kirby was the best while the Orioles, from the start, were trying to tell me that Cal wasn't as good as I was saying he was. It was an interesting contrast."