O's, Ripken not dealing well with The End

May 23, 2001|By Mike Preston

MARRIAGES THAT LAST 20 years are supposed to end with some kind of mutual respect, but that apparently isn't happening in what appears to be Cal Ripken's final year with the Orioles.

In a relationship that has produced 3,000 hits, The Streak and a certain Hall of Fame selection, the Orioles should be celebrating the possible end of his career. Instead, the club and The Icon aren't exactly on harmonious terms.

What has gone wrong?

The Orioles definitely need some lessons in public relations, and Ripken's competitive nature needs to come to grips with reality. Maybe before the season ends, the situation will be resolved.

Certainly, the 2001 season hasn't been a good one for Ripken. A hairline fracture in his rib cage forced him to miss all but one week of spring training, and he started the season 1-for-19. He is batting only .215, and still has looked slow at times in the field.

But at age 40, what did the Orioles expect?

The front office personnel in the warehouse had watched the same Ripken, only a year younger, struggle through the first half of last season in similar fashion. Yet they still signed him on Nov. 1 to a one-year contract worth $6.3 million.

But in the past month, the Orioles have decided to look elsewhere for a third baseman. The manager, Mike Hargrove, said three weeks ago that Ripken will no longer be an everyday third baseman. Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said last week the team had begun exploring trade possibilities for a successor to Ripken at third base, that "there is a particular need."

Oops, what a PR gaffe! The Oriole Way has turned into The Ignorant Way. It must be Slap a Legend Month in Baltimore.

Thrift, though, didn't see it that way. He said yesterday afternoon that his response came from questions about all the positions on the team, not just third base, but only those quotes were placed prominently The Sun's story.

"My job is to fundamentally improve every position, not just for this year, but for 2002, 2003 and 2004," Thrift said. "It is standard procedure for me to evaluate every position, regardless of where we are or who we have there. This really isn't a big deal. Some people try to make a mountain out of a mole hill."

But the Orioles had a scout checking out Texas Rangers Triple-A third baseman Mike Lamb last night. Also, when asked if he could have replied differently about Ripken, Thrift said: "I guess so, but you could say that about anything you do.

"I'm one of the most sensitive guys in baseball," Thrift said. "I've been around a lot of great players, Hall of Fame players like Cal Ripken. I respect all of those people."

But Thrift really didn't have to address it at all. There isn't anyone this side of Chicago that isn't aware the Orioles are in need of a young prospect at third base, but it doesn't have to become a headline in the paper every week, regardless if it's intentional or not.

Be quiet, let The Icon play his way in or out of the job.

The Orioles can't get this public relations business down. They had the perfect reason not to re-sign Ripken last summer when they gutted the team of high-salaried, veteran players, declaring they were opting for a youth movement.

But they were worried about public perception, concerned about those fans who might get upset about Ripken's possibly playing for another team.

Pardon me while I shed one tear.

The days of the pro sports romanticists are dead, buried with the traditionalists from the 1950s and 1960s. Pro sports has gone completely corporate. Corporate fan base. Luxury suites. Free agency.

You buy players like you buy stock. You invest in them, get the maximum and then sell or trade. Sure it's cold, but it's also reality. Around Baltimore, everyone knew Ripken's skills had been declining for years and that the 2000 season might and should have been his last.

But the Orioles, who have always had double standards for Ripken, decided to go another way. They wanted to bring back The Icon, who isn't going to go away without a fight. That's vintage Ripken, but also a problem.

Ego, big crowds, money and fame all play parts in forcing a player to hang on too long. But the most significant factor is competition. They compete for so long it becomes a major part of their existence. Great athletes thrive on it. That's why Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes kept coming back.

The same is true for Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Now, it's Ripken's turn.

He looks down the dugout bench and sees possible replacements like Jeff Conine and Mike Kinkade and realizes he can still compete for a starting job. Ripken's only public response to Thrift was that he play out the season and evaluate where he is at the end. It's a fair request.

No one should suggest that Ripken play every day. Those days are gone. But the Orioles should cut down on the rhetoric about his play at third base. No one wants to hear about it, especially the fans. He's the primary reason people (though a diminishing number) still show up at Camden Yards. The hottest sports ticket in Baltimore is not the Ravens' Monday night game this season, but Ripken's possible final game in Baltimore at the end of the Orioles' season.

It's a season in which the Orioles aren't going anywhere, anyway. Coincidentally, every time the Orioles discuss Ripken's play publicly, he plays better. The Orioles should leave him alone, let him work out his problems or continue to bat .215.

That's the final barometer.

The Orioles wanted him back for one more season, so live with it and be quiet about it.

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