CHICAGO -- The decision apparently has been made. Cal Ripken will be back as Orioles third baseman next season if he so desires. Guaranteed.
Though the deadline for exercising Ripken's $6.5 million option doesn't arrive until the All-Star break, club sources indicate that it will be picked up rather than precipitate an extended and possibly embarrassing discussion over a one-year deal for 2000.
The gesture will be one of appreciation to a player who has defined much of the Orioles' past 18 seasons; however, it will also serve as recognition for Ripken's perseverance and ability to prosper despite twice encountering significant back pain since agreeing to his current deal on Opening Day 1997.
Only recently given up by some for career-dead, Ripken is batting ..325 with nine home runs and 28 RBIs in 157 at-bats. His .573 slugging percentage ranks second on the team to Harold Baines' .596. (Baines and Ripken are the team's two oldest players.)
"Since I've been here I've never seen his bat quicker than the last few weeks," said manager Ray Miller. "He's been phenomenal. He's contributing and having fun with the game. It's tough to be that way when you're hurt."
If there ever was uncertainty about Ripken's contractual status -- and there has existed anti-option sentiment within the organization for most of this season -- it has been muted by the third baseman's recent performance. The Orioles hoped Ripken would give them a tangible reason to assume the option after his extended stay on the disabled list due to an irritated nerve in his lower back. And Ripken has obliged.
After going 1-for-5 last night, Ripken has hit .416 in his past 18 games, including an eight-game hitting streak that featured a nationally televised breakout performance vs. the Atlanta Braves last Sunday night. Not only did Ripken become the first player in team history to produce a six-hit game, but he also established a team record with five runs, tied another with 13 total bases and amassed six RBIs and two home runs.
In one dreamlike night, Ripken obliterated his combined production before he went on the disabled list April 18. He has hit safely in 26 of 32 games since leaving the disabled list, batting .357 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs.
Ripken remains coy about next season. During spring training, he said this season would make his decision. With 66 games done, he said before last night's game, "Right now I'm concentrating on what's at hand, and that's winning games and preparing myself to play every day. I'll address the other matter at the appropriate time, but I don't feel this is the appropriate time."
Ripken's markedly quicker bat speed, renewed enthusiasm for the game and the former Gold Glove shortstop's ability to again play a competent third base have put the Orioles on the spot. Declining to guarantee next year's contract might have some financial legitimacy but based upon past weeks would only further antagonize an increasingly irritated fan base.
To many, Ripken represents the final tie to the franchise's finest days, before marketing concerns overrode player development, before warehouse intrigue replaced a coherent stated philosophy and before the Oriole Way was reduced to little more than an advertising pitch.
Oddly enough, those are the arguments of reconstructionists who might pursue another direction.
By assuming Ripken's option, one argument holds, the Orioles virtually ensure he will be an everyday player when he turns 40 in August of next year, perhaps at the expense of a younger talent.
That argument requires an obvious heir. Willis Otanez already proved this season that minor-league numbers don't equal major-league tools. Given an opportunity to show himself an everyday player as Ripken recovered, Otanez proved incapable of making adjustments. When his bat deteriorated, so did his defense. A 26-year-old player who produced 100 RBIs at Rochester in 1998 brought the club nothing in trade.
Ryan Minor turns 26 in January. Once Ripken's presumptive successor, a role he served Sept. 20 when Ripken removed himself from the lineup after 2,632 consecutive games, Minor's popularity did not transfer from the regime of Pat Gillick to that of Frank Wren.
For all the clamor for the Orioles to get younger and draw from within, the farm system remains woefully light on position players ready to make such a leap. Second baseman Jerry Hairston is considered the most likely as first baseman Calvin Pickering has endured a season marred by injuries and apparent lethargy at Rochester. At first base, Pickering remains a project with limited range and a timid arm.
Majority owner Peter Angelos could decline to assume the option and attempt to negotiate an incentive-laden one-year deal that might allow Ripken a chance to earn more than the option's total value. Example: Ripken would receive $2.5 million as a buyout, receive a $2.5 million base for 2000 and an additional $2 million in appearance incentives that would be capped at 550 plate appearances, an attainable number for an everyday player who stays injury-free.
But rather than quibble over hundreds of thousands, the Orioles apparently are ready to recognize dual realities: Ripken has made millions for his club during an 18-year career in which he was at times among the few reasons to watch an otherwise brutal product.
Rapidly approaching a time when many talents his age become ceremonial players, Ripken has preserved his dignity as one of the game's heroes while just as importantly remaining a credible force within his team's lineup.
Pub Date: 6/20/99