O's, Ripken should let deadline pass

June 13, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- For a brief moment yesterday, his batting average stood at .300. It dropped to .298 after his final at-bat, but since returning from the disabled list, Cal Ripken sure hasn't looked ready to retire.

In 25 games, Ripken has batted .330 with nine doubles, four home runs and 15 RBIs -- encouraging numbers, to be sure. But can he stay healthy? Can he keep hitting? Can he avoid losing more range at third base?

Such questions are answered over the course of a season, but Ripken's contract states that the Orioles must decide by the All-Star break whether to exercise his $6.3 million option for next season, or buy him out for $2.5 million with a chance to re-sign him at a lesser salary.

The proper move would be for both parties to postpone the decision until the end of the season. But with the deadline one month away, Ripken possesses the leverage to put the Orioles in an uncomfortable position.

On one hand, Ripken turns 39 in August, and the Orioles need to purge their aging veterans in favor of younger players. On the other hand, Ripken is a future Hall of Famer, and should be treated with the respect that he deserves.

Whatever the Orioles do, they can't risk alienating one of their all-time greats. But they've rarely shown grace in saying goodbye under owner Peter Angelos, as evidenced by the bitter partings of talents as diverse as Jon Miller, Davey Johnson and Rafael Palmeiro.

Perhaps Angelos would simply exercise Ripken's option, seeking a public-relations coup in this lost season. But such a decision would commit the Orioles to Ripken as their regular third baseman for another season -- unless they were willing to pay him $6.3 million to play part-time.

No one knows if Ripken can sustain a full workload for the rest of '99, much less in 2000. He's coming off his first career trip to the disabled list, and the nerve irritation in his lower back eventually will require surgery. It's possible that he, too, will want the Orioles to postpone their decision.

Then again, if you're Ripken, and the Orioles just guaranteed Albert Belle $65 million, what would be your reaction if the club balked at paying you less than one-tenth of that amount? How would you feel if you've generated more revenue for the franchise than any player in team history?

For most of the '90s -- and even before -- Ripken's consecutive-games streak gave Orioles ticket buyers the chance to witness history in the making. The same holds true now that The Streak is over. Ripken needs 83 hits for 3,000 and 11 homers for 400. He could reach both milestones this season.

The counter-argument is that perhaps no team but the Orioles would have allowed Ripken to pursue The Streak in the first place -- and that the club settled its figurative debts by paying Ripken $6.3 million in each of the past two seasons, when his production no longer merits that salary.

Such a debate is unseemly, but it illustrates how quickly this negotiation can descend into nastiness -- a frightening prospect, considering that none of the above points even address the most important issue. Not what is best for Ripken. What is best for the Orioles.

Ryan Minor, the club's top third-base prospect, is still too inconsistent to project as Ripken's full-time replacement. Perhaps Minor could begin next season as Ripken's backup and develop into a regular. But if he flopped, the Orioles would be back to where they started.

A better plan would be to acquire a center fielder, then shift B. J. Surhoff to third and Brady Anderson to left. Those moves could improve the Orioles at center and third and leave them no worse in left. But then, there would be no place for Ripken.

Which brings us back to the original question:

Should the Orioles exercise Ripken's option?

The club would maintain maximum flexibility by buying out Ripken for $2.5 million, then offering him a reduced base salary with incentives that could push his total package back to $6.3 million.

That way, Ripken would be paid according to his role -- the more he played, the more money he would earn. What's the worst that could happen to the Orioles if they used him off the bench? They'd overpay him for one more season, but not by as much as they would have if they had exercised the option.

Again, the difference might not be enough to matter to Angelos, who could look foolish bickering with Ripken over $2 million when he's supporting a payroll of $84 million. And again, the question is best left until the end of the season.

By then, the Orioles would know if Ripken was still capable of playing regularly for prolonged stretches. And they would have a better idea about whether they could depend on him for next season.

Ripken, too, would have many of his questions answered. It seems doubtful he would retire after 3,000 hits and 400 homers -- he still would be productive if he reached those milestones this season. But he has grown more realistic about his future since his back injury.

Remember, he ended his consecutive-games streak before the Orioles could end it for him. He's just as likely to choose the correct path toward retirement.

That path won't be determined by the All-Star break.

Everyone needs more time.

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