Cal Ripken casting long winter shadow


MIAMI BEACH -- The Baltimore Orioles' agenda at these winter meetings could not be more specific: Trade Randy Milligan, acquire starting pitching and maybe find a new second baseman. But after one day, it's clear those goals won't be easily accomplished.

Even more alarming, any short-term objective still seems rather insignificant compared to the most critical issue confronting this club -- re-signing American League MVP Cal Ripken before he enters the final year of his contract.

The Orioles apparently want to upgrade the present before they cement the future, but they can't escape the shadow of an unsigned Ripken. Nearly every move they ponder raises the inevitable question: What about Cal?

How angry would he be if the Orioles replace his brother Bill at second base? How insulted would he be if they sign a mediocre free-agent pitcher for millions? And how interested is he in even signing now as baseball salaries continue to soar?

From the Orioles' perspective, the last question is the most troubling. Ten months ago, the San Diego Padres signed Fred McGriff to a five-year deal worth $19 million. Last week, the New York Mets gave Bobby Bonilla a deal of the same length for $29 million.

That sets the rate of inflation for a baseball superstar at $1 million per month. The enduring lesson of the big-money era is the more you wait, the more you pay. Yet from every indication, the Orioles have yet to initiate contract talks with Ripken.

Strange, considering they're about to sign Gregg Olson to a contract that will enable them to avoid salary arbitration with the star reliever for two years. Strange, considering how fervently they're trying to improve the rest of the club.

The shopping of Milligan began in earnest yesterday, and Montreal and Los Angeles appeared the most active suitors. Good luck: The Expos are turning stingy knowing the Orioles are eager to deal, and the Dodgers are engaging in their annual practice of lowball trade offers.

Here's what's interesting: General manager Roland Hemond now openly admits the Orioles are targeting second basemen. Montreal has speedy Delino DeShields and rookie Bret Barberie. Los Angeles has the enigmatic veteran, Juan Samuel.

The best fit is still probably with Montreal -- Milligan for Barberie and a young starting pitcher? -- but an Orioles source said the talks "were not going as well as we hoped." Expos GM Dan Duquette also offered little reason for optimism.

"In order for us to entertain any thoughts of moving either second baseman, we'd need a young star in return," Duquette said -- Milligan is 30. "Both of these guys are offensive threats that play in the middle of the diamond. It's a very valuable resource, and one I don't plan to give away."

Discount the posturing: The point is, either second baseman would be an improvement offensively over Bill Ripken, and so would Samuel. Ripken, Juan Bell and Tim Hulett combined for a .240 on-base percentage last season. Second base in Baltimore was the least productive position in the majors.

The need for a change is obvious, but Bill's last name gets in the way. Apparently the Orioles are not deterred. Cal signed his last contract in 1988 three months after his father was fired as manager. What's more, he probably doesn't expect Bill to be his double-play partner for the next 10 years.

Still, no one knows for sure, so jilting Bill is a risk. Cal never publicly complains about any subject, and he would look childish sulking over his scorned brother. Then again, maybe he'd view this as the final injustice. The Ripken family, you might have noticed, sticks together.

The point would be moot if the Orioles would just make Ripken the highest-paid player in the game, not necessarily at $30 million for five years, but perhaps at $18 million for three. But again, they're attending to other matters, trying to sign a free-agent pitcher like Kirk McCaskill or Joe Hesketh first.

Here, too, their goal is to resolve a pressing need; right now their No. 4 and 5 starters are Jose Mesa and Eric Hetzel. Indeed, team officials are plotting as if majority owner Eli Jacobs is suddenly turning from Scrooge into Santa.

Picture it: Olson figures to command at least $3 million for two years. Glenn Davis already is guaranteed $6.6 million for two. A free-agent pitcher might require another $6-7 million for three. Factor in the tens of millions for Ripken, and the payroll is suddenly imposing.

It's all going to happen.

The question is when.

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