Cost of teasing Cal will never be known

Ken Rosenthal

April 27, 1993|By Ken Rosenthal

Cal Ripken always wanted to keep baseball and business separate. It was the right idea, because as author John Feinstein makes painfully clear in "Play Ball," once the Orioles shortstop got caught in the tangled web of his 1992 contract negotiations, he couldn't get out.

Disturbing offers, confusing tactics, frustrating delays -- clearly, the atmosphere depicted by Feinstein is not one in which the average baseball player would feel comfortable. For Ripken -- a hometown hero, franchise player and intensely analytical superstar -- the process was downright agonizing.

It's impossible for players to perform in a vacuum in the big-money era, but Ripken now concedes he should have postponed the talks until the end of the season. The distraction proved overwhelming, and after examining Feinstein's account, it's fair to ask whether the Orioles pushed him too far.

The reader gets only one side of the story, because Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, showed Feinstein his notes, and Orioles president Larry Lucchino did not. Lucchino now says the club's first offer was not two years at $10 million, but four years at more than $20 million. The two sides agree that Shapiro's first demand was not $39 million, but more than $50 million.

All negotiations must start somewhere, so the figures are largely incidental. Lucchino wants it known that the Orioles did not insult Ripken with a low-ball offer, and that's fine. He also says the 333-day negotiation did not turn personal or acrimonious, and that, too, seems a reasonable analysis.

Still, it was a tumultuous period.

That much is evident from "Play Ball."

From the start, the Orioles took a more confrontational approach with Ripken than Minnesota did with Shapiro's other big-ticket client, Kirby Puckett. At their first meeting, Twins general manager Andy MacPhail gave Shapiro a booklet with a picture of Puckett on the cover. The booklet detailed Puckett's value to the Twins. It was titled, "The Best in the Game."

Contrast that with the Orioles, who viewed Ripken as merely the best shortstop in the game, even coming off an MVP season. Even today, Lucchino talks about how the club offered to pay Ripken a higher base salary than Barry Larkin, who signed a five-year deal for more than $25 million with Cincinnati in January 1992. Of course, at the time, Ripken was in the category of Barry Bonds.

Yet, all that was standard negotiating, compared with the two personal letters Lucchino wrote Ripken during the talks, with copies going to Shapiro. Lucchino defends such direct contact as "very useful," but to Shapiro, it was highly unusual. According to the book, he tried to get Lucchino to stop traveling secretary Phil Itzoe from delivering the second letter to Ripken at his locker.

That letter, dated July 11, concluded with Lucchino saying, "We look forward to reaching agreement now." As Feinstein writes, "To Ripken, now meant today." Lucchino says he indeed wanted to strike a deal during the All-Star break. But as it turned out, the negotiations lasted another six weeks.

No wonder Ripken was an emotional wreck, but Lucchino bristles at the suggestion that he did anything improper. "It can be important to talk to the player directly," he said. "There is an opportunity for misunderstanding if you always go through a third party. We wanted to make sure there was no misunderstanding. We've done it before, and we'll do it again."

Still, isn't it Shapiro's job to clarify any misunderstandings? And, in the middle of a pennant race, didn't the club want Ripken to keep as distant from the negotiations -- and as focused on baseball -- as possible? Shapiro now says he doesn't think Lucchino was trying to play "mind games." But isn't that what happened?

Lucchino, remember, is a protege of the late Edward Bennett Williams, the high-powered attorney who practiced the art of "contest living." Maybe club owner Eli Jacobs left him no room to maneuver after approving a five-year, $30 million offer to Ripken in spring training. And maybe Ripken should have just signed right then, seeing as how he received only $500,000 more five months later.

"Who knows?" Lucchino says. "He didn't have a Cal Ripken season. These guys are human beings. But they're also professional athletes. There is a stress and strain with contracts that does occur. If you ask me what would have been if he had signed right before Opening Day -- which was everyone's goal -- I can't answer that."

No one can.

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