Cal deserves straight talk on leadership

July 03, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

TORONTO -- Enough mind games.

Enough mixed signals.

Enough manipulation of the media.

If the Orioles want Cal Ripken to be a better leader, they should sit him down and explain how they want him to lead.

Club officials apparently believe he has too much influence. And yet, they don't believe he is influential enough.

Which is it?

The issue needs to be addressed precisely and properly.

And soon, for the benefit of everyone involved.

The question is not whether the Orioles need more leadership from Ripken. The question is how to bring out that quality, and the club is going about it in rather peculiar fashion.

Three times, club officials have blind-sided Ripken in the media, with owner Peter Angelos, general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson taking turns playing the heavy.

Evidently, they perceive Ripken as inflexible, because that is the only justification for such a public campaign. But now that wall has been broken, and the brass has Ripken's attention.

It's time for a summit, for the Orioles to go to their future Hall of Fame short stop, define their version of leadership and begin repairing this uneasy relationship.

Gillick took a thinly veiled swipe at Ripken by questioning whether the nucleus of the team knows how to win.

Johnson forced Ripken into a Ripken corner by informing the media of his plan to move him from shortstop to third base.

And Angelos fired the loudest shot, saying the Orioles were "desperate for leadership" and challenging Ripken to accept that task.

What's next, the end of Ripken's consecutive-games streak through a press release?

Not if Ripken gets with the program.

But first, he must understand what the program entails.

Ripken responded to Johnson's threat by entering one of the hottest stretches of his career, and he seems to be taking Angelos' words to heart as well.

Rookie pitcher Rocky Coppinger said he appreciated Ripken's visit Monday after he allowed a home run to John Olerud leading off the seventh inning.

"Cal came out and said it was just one hit, just go after those guys," Coppinger said. "They were good words of encouragement."

Johnson removed Coppinger, but that's besides the point. Ripken had offered the kind of vocal leadership that club officials apparently believe is lacking.

But that doesn't mean their little game is a success.

If anything, they're heading into Eddie Murray territory, risking the alienation of a legend. Murray's disenchantment led to a trade, but now he's 10 homers short of 500, and the Orioles recently considered re-acquiring him.

Perfect timing.

Murray and Ripken could play "Can you top this?" with their perceived slights.

Must history repeat?

All this finger-pointing is unbecoming, and potentially counter-productive.

Indeed, it would be understandable if Ripken was just slightly confused by the events of recent weeks.

When he walks to the mound to talk to a pitcher, does that make him a threat to his manager and pitching coach, or does that make him a leader?

No man is bigger than the team -- that was the message when Johnson removed Ripken for a pinch runner, dropped him to the No. 7 position in the lineup and asked him to move to third.

Ripken occasionally needs to be bigger than the team -- that seems to be the message now.

Here's a player who struggled in 1992 when the Orioles' previous ownership played hardball in contract negotiations, a player known for his intense preparation and analysis.

Why would the Orioles want to continue disrupting such a player, especially when he's performing at a high level, and when they want more out of him?

They've made their point.

Enough surprises.

Angelos already has said he plans to have lunch with Ripken. But it's Johnson who needs to clarify exactly what he wants from his shortstop, to get everyone on the same page once and for all.

None of this is so complex that it can't be resolved.

Ripken reportedly has called pitches in the past. Does Johnson want his leadership responsibility to extend to the field, or not?

Too often, clubs assume that players know what is required of them. And too often, players assume that clubs act with ulterior motives.

A meeting would enable both sides to clear the air and move forward. It could be just Johnson and Ripken. Or it could include Gillick and Angelos, and even Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The Orioles need to stop talking to Ripken through the media, and start talking to him directly.

Do it precisely, do it properly.

Do it soon, before both sides start erecting new walls.

Pub Date: 7/03/96

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