Cal Ripken Jr. shortstops talk of contract


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Cal Ripken was all business yesterday, except when it came to talking about business.

His uncertain contract situation figures to be one of the major preoccupations of the 1992 season, but he wouldn't let it become a major issue on the Orioles' first day of full-squad workouts at Twin Lakes Park.

"My position is that I'm signed through the end of the year," he said. "It's baseball time now. I'm focusing on baseball. I'd rather not even talk about that right now."

That is the company line, too. The Orioles are guarded when it comes to contract negotiations, especially the kind that require two digits and six zeros. Negotiations are taking place between the club and Ripken's attorney, Ron Shapiro, but it would take nothing short of a wiretap to shed any real light on the subject.

Ripken and Orioles management might be the only ones who don't want to talk about it. His contract status has become a talk-show staple in the Baltimore area, and speculation over how much he'll eventually sign for is good for a few minutes of animated conversation in any local sports bar.

How much is he worth? Depends on whom you ask and what you take into consideration.

Bobby Bonilla got a five-year contract worth $29 million with a lesser track record and nothing to compare with Ripken's record of community involvement. Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg is rumored to be close to signing a five-year deal worth $31 million. With Ripken on deck, it doesn't figure to stop there, not after a 1991 season in which he won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, among others, and challenged several single-season offensive records for players at his position.

He could become baseball's first $7 million player, but he seems far more interested in building on last year's substantial accomplishments. Not an easy act to follow.

Lest anyone forget, Ripken batted .323 with 34 home runs and 114 RBIs and ranked among the league leaders in almost every key offensive category. He led the league in fielding percentage, total chances, putouts and assists on the way to his first Gold Glove. He also led the league in awards banquets and made appearances on "The Arsenio Hall Show" and "Late Night with David Letterman." Now, he's back, and he wants to get down to business -- just not the kind of business everyone wants him to talk about.

"In a lot of ways, it was a very short off-season," he said, "but it was also an exciting off-season. There are certain opportunities that only come along if you've had a year like I had, and that was fun, but toward the end it started to be kind of a grind.

"It all kind of caught up with me. It's time to get back to baseball, because that's what I do."

The busy off-season forced Ripken into a less-structured workout schedule, but he seems confident that he can pick up where he left off in 1991. He isn't saying that he can duplicate the numbers, just the mechanical adjustments and mental bTC framework that made him so successful.

"Going into the season, I recognize that last year was such a tremendous year that it would be hard to duplicate," he said, "but I'm not going to rule out having the same kind of numbers. I'm going to try to duplicate the numbers. I'm going to try to do it by concentrating on today and not tomorrow."

The today, in this case, was the first day of spring training for Ripken and the handful of position players who did not report early. He went through drills, then held his first news conference of the season. He also met with manager John Oates, who was looking for a few pointers on how to handle a guy who has played in 1,573 straight games.

"I think veteran players should have a say in how much they play in spring training," Oates said. "The good Lord willing, Cal is going to play in 162 games this year, unless we have one rained out after five [innings] and he has to play in 163.

"I don't know what it's like to play 100 games. I can't imagine what it would be like to play 162. But, if he played once every two weeks, I'd know just how to handle him."

Ripken would like to do whatever it takes to produce a carbon copy of last year's individual performance, but he insists that he would trade all the flashy statistics for just one big number -- in the win column. He expressed optimism that the club's off-season rebuilding project will be enough to carry the Orioles into contention.

"The key to any successful team is the starting pitching," he said. "It's evident, when you look at Atlanta and Minnesota, their starting pitching carried them through the season. That's the difference between finishing last and having a big year."

The Orioles have addressed the pitching problem, though there is room to wonder if they have done enough to gain any ground on the defending AL East champion Toronto Blue Jays or the contending Boston Red Sox. Ripken chooses to look on the bright side.

"We have the ability to put runs on the board, play defense and make the big plays," Ripken said. "It's just a matter of keeping the other team from scoring. We've had some development from our young pitchers -- some bright signs -- and we added some veteran starters, so we've got a chance to have our starters get into the late innings.

"Of course, everyone is really optimistic in spring training. Everybody is tied for first. No matter what happened the year before, you think you can do better."

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