Ripken gives a signature performance

April 03, 1997|By John Eisenberg

B.J. Surhoff summed it up best in the Orioles' clubhouse after the game.

"I guess this is a pretty good day for you," Surhoff said to his teammate, Cal Ripken. "A couple of doubles, a home run, a walk, a win and a new contract."

Didn't even mention the brilliant defensive stop in the fourth inning.

Ripken smiled at Surhoff's summation.

"It's not a bad day," he said, as understated as ever.

If that's all it was -- not a bad day -- then a good day for Ripken must be some kind of good. Because yesterday was nothing less than perfect.

All Ripken did was secure his future and his legend in Baltimore, play his new position flawlessly and lead the Orioles over the Kansas City Royals on Opening Day at Camden Yards.

That's all.

"So, Cal, it seems like your life is kind of working out," a reporter said to Ripken after the game.

Ripken could only laugh at the wry remark and shrug his shoulders. He certainly couldn't argue.

Consider the text of his life at age 36. He has a fine family, more money than he can spend, a reservation at the Hall of Fame -- and now, thanks to the two-year contract extension, which was agreed to just before the first pitch yesterday, he is assured of playing his entire career in his hometown, where he is revered.

Who needs fiction when those are the facts?

"Don't think I don't think I'm lucky," Ripken said.

That he would sign a new contract with the Orioles always was a high-odds proposition. Both sides needed the other too much. Losing the most popular player in club history would have been a public relations disaster for the club. And Ripken would have tarnished his impeccable image and become just another money-sniffing rent-a-player had he gone elsewhere.

"Cal wanted to stay and we wanted to keep him, so it was just a matter of finding common ground," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said.

Giving him $15.1 million of guaranteed money was more than fair. Ripken probably could have found a higher salary on the open market next year -- it was easy to envision an expansion team throwing him $24 million over three years to provide some star power -- but he'll make up any difference and more playing here and adding to his legend as the throwback who broke Lou Gehrig's record.

Still, agreeing to a contract is never a simple matter with so much money at stake, and the talks between the club and Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, pushed so close to the start of the season that Shapiro and Orioles GM Pat Gillick were conversing on their cell phones from their seats at the ballpark yesterday.

Ripken didn't know that a deal was done until minutes before the game, as he waited with his teammates for the player introductions.

"Pat and I went out to tell him that it was wrapped up," Malone said. "We congratulated him and wished him luck for the season."

Was Ripken relieved? Absolutely. He didn't want to start the season with his status unresolved. The last time that happened, he slumped through the season.

"I'm the type of person who thinks about those [contract] things," he said, "and maybe it pops into your head when you're on the field and you get distracted. That's not a good situation. I'm a baseball player. I don't want to be worrying about things like that."

He certainly played yesterday as if he felt a burden has been lifted. He not only had three extra-base hits, including the Orioles' first home run of the season, but he also made a superb defensive play.

With a runner on second and two out in the top of the fourth, he saved a run by diving to his right to nab a sharp grounder down the third base line, then throwing out the batter, Jeff King, from his knees.

Any doubts about Ripken's ability to play his new position, third base, evaporated as first base umpire John Shulock raised a hand to signal that King was out.

"He's very comfortable over there," said Jimmy Key, the winning pitcher for the Orioles. "I'm going to try to get as many balls hit over there as possible."

With the crowd still buzzing about his play, Ripken led off the fourth inning and banked a high fly ball into the left-field seats.

"After I made the play, I was feeling pretty good, I saw a pitch I could hit and I hit it," he said. "I had been expecting a nerve-racking Opening Day, what with moving to a new position and all, but for some reason it was real relaxed and I was very comfortable. I think that showed at the plate."

He laughed at the suggestion that he hit the home run because he signed the contract.

"I wish I could say that I knew I was going to have a press conference later, so I hit a homer," he said, "but the truth is that it just happened."

Whatever, it was all part of a day that was scripted straight out of Hollywood, almost impossibly sweet and upbeat and perfect. The hometown hero hit the homer, signed the contract, won the game, put on a designer suit and disappeared into the night with a grin, holding his wife's hand.

Not a bad day, he said.

Couldn't have been better, actually.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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