Neither Ripken nor O's can afford to bobble deal

February 05, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Here's the deal, or at least what should be the deal, if Cal Ripken is going to sign a contract extension by Opening Day:

Three years, $20 million.

Fair?

Of course it's fair.

Both sides would hate the terms.

The Orioles probably believe they're overpaying Ripken -- his $6.2 million salary is the 10th-highest among position players -- so they don't want to give him a raise of almost $500,000 per season.

Ripken, meanwhile, knows he might command $7.5 million to $8 million as a free agent after this season, so he almost certainly would want the Orioles to pay him closer to market value.

Each side can offer valid arguments, but let's get one thing straight, knowing that Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, are capable of turning this into Jon Miller II.

Ripken can't afford to leave Baltimore, and the Orioles can't afford to lose him.

Understood?

It had better be.

If the greatest player in franchise history finishes his career with another team, no amount of spin control will save the principals.

Angelos, Shapiro, Ripken.

Each is a pillar of the community.

Each has a reputation to uphold.

Each, ultimately, has to live here.

If the tone sounds unduly harsh, so be it. The loss of Miller was one of the biggest outrages in Baltimore sports history. Yet, it would be a mere fender bender compared with the 24-car pileup that would result from the loss of Ripken.

This is a unique negotiation, given the game's changing economics, Ripken's value as a revenue producer and the fact that he turns 37 in August. But really, it's not that complicated.

Ripken isn't a $7 million player. He probably isn't even a $6 million player. Still, he drove in 102 runs last season, and, in moving him to third base, the Orioles proclaimed he'd be an All-Star at that position.

So, why shouldn't he get a raise?

Forget baseball for a moment, and consider how much the Orioles have pocketed from sales of Ripken-related merchandise over the past decade and how many fans he has pulled into the ballpark.

The income from the past two seasons alone -- with Ripken's becoming the game's all-time iron man -- is off the charts. That's why the Orioles can justify the third year on his contract, even though Ripken will be 40 when the deal expires.

And if all that's not enough, Shapiro can fire his final bullet -- free agency.

It's the single-team theory.

All it takes is one idiot owner to set the market, no matter how outrageous.

Albert Belle, human time bomb, got $11 million per season.

Roger Clemens, fading ace, got $8 million.

Bobby Bonilla, one-dimensional slugger, almost $6 million.

Again, forget baseball. Ripken would add prestige to any club he joins. He also could bring instant credibility to an expansion franchise. Remember, Arizona and Tampa Bay enter the bidding next winter. And what might Ripken be worth to Disney in Anaheim?

Scary thoughts for the Orioles.

But also scary thoughts for Ripken and Shapiro.

So much of Ripken's image stems from his ties to Baltimore. Think of his "Like A Rock" commercials for Chevrolet. Why is Ripken like a rock? Because of his consecutive-games record. XTC And because he has spent his entire career with his hometown team.

If he leaves -- leaves for an extra $1 million per season -- the perception of him would change dramatically.

Ripken would be considered worse than just another greedy ballplayer.

He'd be a hypocrite.

Thus, Shapiro can't push too far. Ripken earned approximately twice as much as National League Most Valuable Player Ken Caminiti last season. He's the highest-paid Oriole, earning more than Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Brady Anderson, even though he's less productive.

How much does he need?

The Orioles say they lost $5 million last season. They face a luxury tax if their payroll exceeds $51 million. They might even lose Anderson -- perhaps Ripken's best friend on the club -- because of financial considerations.

Ripken deserves a raise, but not one that would compromise the Orioles' ability to field a competitive team. Who knows? If both he and Mike Mussina sign for below market value, maybe the Orioles can keep Anderson.

The math isn't that difficult -- Shapiro probably wants more than $6.2 million, and Angelos probably wants to pay less than $7 million. Each side possesses enormous leverage. But the bottom line is, Ripken and the Orioles need each other.

Three years, $20 million.

Get it done.

Pub Date: 2/05/97

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