Ripken on deck, following Sandberg blast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The news had to hit the Orioles front office like a bolt from the bank vault. Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg agreed to terms Monday on a four-year contract extension worth a minimum of $28.4 million.

It takes a fifth-year buyout and some creative mathematics to make him baseball's first $7 million player, but the implications for the Orioles are clear.

Cal Ripken is one season away from free-agent eligibility. He is only a few months removed from an MVP season. He might be the best all-round player in the game. In short, he's the franchise, and, apparently, he isn't getting any cheaper.

So, the question arises anew. What are the Orioles waiting for? And it prompts another question. Have they waited too long?

No one is talking. Club president Larry Lucchino responded to the Sandberg signing with "a very big no comment." Ripken was just as reserved. He leaves the business end of his baseball career to attorney Ron Shapiro, who is pretty reserved himself on the subject of contract negotiations.

Shapiro arrived in Sarasota last night and will be in the Orioles camp today. Shapiro said Ripken's contract status had nothing to do with his presence.

"We [Shapiro and associate Michael Maas] are on a tour of training camps that we do every year," said Shapiro, who refused to speculate on the impact of Sandberg's contract. "Every contract affects everything. Other than that, there isn't anything I can say."

Asked if he was having talks with the Orioles, Shapiro said: "I won't comment on that."

Ripken said: "I don't want to get involved in contracts, numbers and that kind of stuff. I'm here in spring training. It's baseball season. As I said earlier, I'm signed through the end of this year."

Beyond 1992, the numbers figure to be staggering. There has been speculation for months that Ripken would break the $7 million-per-year barrier. Sandberg's contract might have raised the stakes again.

Is $8 million per year out of the question? Is a four-year deal now a possibility? Will the club act quickly now that the most relevant comparative salary has come in?

Sandberg's new contract provides the best indication yet of Ripken's market value. The Cubs second baseman is the most productive offensive player at his position, and he is the player most identified with his club. Ripken, 31, is a year younger, but both have comparable service time, so it isn't difficult to draw comparisons.

Both are very durable and are outstanding defensive players. Sandberg has a better career batting average, but Ripken has clear advantages in almost every other offensive category.

The comparisons, however, may not be as important as the timing. Kirby Puckett became baseball's first $3 million player only a couple of years ago. Jose Canseco took the salary record to $5 million just months later. Bobby Bonilla set the record for a total package at $29.5 million for five years in November. Now, Sandberg may have dispelled the notion that baseball's runaway salary spiral was about to top out.

"I think it is further evidence that salaries will continue to spiral upward for the top players in the game," said agent Jeff Moorad, who negotiated the contract that temporarily made San Francisco Giants first baseman Will Clark baseball's highest-paid player at $3.75 million per year in 1990.

"When we finalized Will's $15 million contract two years ago and he was the highest-paid player, we fully expected other top players to use that contract to better themselves. I think that any player who signs as the highest-paid player expects someone else to come in higher. Cal Ripken is positioned as well as a player possibly could be with free agency staring the Orioles in the face. I'm sure he and his agent will factor that into the process."

The Kansas City Royals' George Brett, who will make $3.1 million this year, told The Associated Press: "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd see a guy making $7 million a year playing baseball. That's nothing. Wait until Cal signs. If I was the Orioles, right now I'd go up to Cal and say, 'I'll give you 7 million.' "

Baseball management has spent two years sounding the alarm over the imminent decline of broadcast revenues, but the Sandberg contract hardly points to the collapse of baseball's inflated salary structure.

Don Fehr, the director of the Major League Players Association, said the cause-and-effect relationship that exists between revenues and salaries does not yet point to a downturn in payroll expenditures.

"Salaries are related to revenues, and regardless of what you hear, revenues still are increasing at a rapid rate," said Fehr, who visited Twin Lakes Park yesterday to brief the Orioles on union business. "When revenues level off, salaries will level off. When revenues fall, salaries will fall. We're in the midst of a phenomenon that hasn't run its course yet."

But even Fehr expressed surprise that the top baseball salary is reaching $7 million.

"I wouldn't have predicted it this soon," he said, "but I've long since given up on trying to figure out how free markets work."

Craig Skiem, a sports consultant and director of public assembly industry services with Cooper & Lybrand, a Dallas-based accounting and consulting firm, said: "A lot of people are saying this is hitting a peak, and there are others who think it has another year or two to go."

Without a new source of revenue growth -- network television contracts seem unlikely to increase -- owners will have to look more closely at costs such as salaries, he said. But that idea has been kicked around for years with little sign of success.

The market environment doesn't figure to change quickly enough to affect Ripken's earning potential adversely. Even if baseball revenues drop, the salary arbitration system figures to keep the salary structure relatively stable for several years thereafter.

If that is true, the Orioles must face the possibility that they miscalculated badly in not signing Ripken to a multiyear extension when Glenn Davis passed him on the club's salary ladder a year ago.

Ripken was two years into a three-year, $6.1 million deal that included a club option on 1992. He was a bargain last year at a base salary of about $2.1 million (plus incentives), and will make the same this season. He would have stayed a bargain if the club had extended his contract at, say, $5 million per year, but three years of declining offensive numbers may have kept them from taking the plunge.

Perhaps Ripken would not have taken the bait anyway. Perhaps he and Shapiro wanted to see just what the market would bear. Now, they know. Now, the Orioles know. The question is, what will they do about it?

If Ripken's previous statements on salaries still hold, he is not obsessed with being the highest-paid player in the game, so the Sandberg contract isn't necessarily a starting point for Ripken's financial demands.

"I think you have to look at all the factors," said agent Barry Axelrod, who represents Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe. "It's Cal's hometown, and I would assume he wants to stay there. You also have to take a look at the employer. I'm not putting down the Orioles, but they don't have [Chicago cable TV station] WGN paying the bill. Cal, being sort of a member of the family, might have some sensitivity to that."

That's possible, but Ripken doesn't figure to sell himself short. If he was willing to do that, the negotiations might be over by now.

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