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Will Orioles offer contract as Ripken's birthday gift? Aug. 24 target date for potential signing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If you're tracking negotiations between the Orioles and Cal Ripken, one week from tomorrow is a day to circle on your calendar.

It's not a deadline, but if the sides are going to get a deal done before the end of the season, Monday, Aug. 24, is an obvious target date.

That will be Ripken's 32nd birthday, the team is at home that night (against the California Angels), and given the Orioles' flair for these kind of things, it would be a natural setting for an announcement -- if an agreement can be reached. There are also other considerations.

Three days later the Orioles leave on a 10-day trip to the West Coast, not returning home until Labor Day, Sept. 7. If the Orioles and Ron Shapiro, who represents Ripken, haven't completed negotiations, they almost certainly would be curtailed until after the season. It stands to reason that neither side will want to be bogged down in negotiations in the final month during a pennant race.

The negotiations have been going on quietly for five months now, with five years and $30 million the numbers drawing the most speculation.

And there is enough reason to speculate that an agreement could be reached before the month is over.

While following past policy and not commenting directly on negotiations, Shapiro put to rest any notion that a decision has been made for Ripken to leave after his contract expires at the end of the year.

"That is absolutely untrue," said Shapiro.

There is a feeling, maybe valid maybe not, that his contract situation has affected Ripken's home run total. For the first time in his 11-year career, Ripken is on a pace to finish with fewer than 20 home runs.

If the Orioles believe that history will repeat itself, they no doubt would like to get Ripken signed as soon as possible. The last time he did it, July 27, 1988, Ripken hit seven home runs in his next 17 games.

Look for the Orioles to make a push to get the matter resolved before the month is over -- quite possibly in time for a birthday present.

Puckett's case is parallel

Shapiro's other potential marquee free agent, Minnesota Twins center fielder Kirby Puckett, presents an interesting parallel to Ripken.

Prior to last night, the Orioles' shortstop had gone 47 games (since June 23) without a home run, the longest drought of his career.

Meanwhile, Puckett, who thought he had reached a five-year, $27.5 million deal earlier only to have the Twins pull out, went from June 28 to Aug. 10 without hitting a homer.

Shapiro's discussions about Puckett with Twins' general manager Andy MacPhail remain on hold -- but haven't broken off.

Free-agent surplus

There is no question that this year's list of possible free agents is potentially a bumper crop. Headed by Barry Bonds, and with the likes of Puckett, Ripken, Mark McGwire, Doug Drabek, etc., this could be the most talented crop of free agents ever.

But a closer examination reveals that, based on this year's salaries and age, there might not be as many attractive players. A total of 18 players are already making in excess of $3 million per year and five of them top the $4 million mark, headed by Texas outfielder Ruben Sierra, who is making $5 million. Incidentally, neither Ripken nor Puckett falls into that category, with both making less than $3 million this year.

In addition, of the 177 players who could become available, 69 of them (39 percent) will be 35 or older next year. Forty-eight of the 107 potential American League free agents fall into that category, 21 of 70 from the National League.

Based on today's market, where the average salary is slightly in excess of $1 million, about 25 to 30 of the 177 players can expect to signifi

cantly improve their financial condition.

Is Dawson's magic gone?

Has Andre Dawson finally lost it? Or is his recent slump a result of the Cubs' decision not to negotiate with him until after the National League's Nov. 17 expansion draft?

On June 16, Dawson was hitting .304, with nine home runs and 42 runs batted in. Going into the weekend, he had hit .179 (31-for-173) since then, and was even worse since the All-Star break -- .146 (13-for-89).

"I know that's the first thing people say [that he's finished]," said Dawson, who is 38. "They can write whatever they want -- but you don't just look at a two- or three-week period."

Dawson was upset with the Cubs, who told him they wouldn't re-sign him before Nov. 17 because they wanted to be able to protect a younger player in the expansion draft.

Alou's approach

Gary Carter is impressed by Felipe Alou, Montreal's new skipper. "I've never really played for a manager like him," said the veteran catcher. "He's been different, really -- but a breath of fresh air."

Alou says there is no mystery about his approach. "It's not how zTC well a manager knows players," he said, "but how well the players know the manager. There is nothing hidden here.

"I told the players [in his opening address] that I want no fear here," said Alou. "When you're afraid of losing, the flow of talent doesn't come out.

"Pressure is something you don't see -- it's something you feel. I don't want to be a manager who puts pressure on players. The less pressure, the better the performance."

The philosophy must be working. Since June 24, when they were in last place, the Expos had played 13 series before this weekend -- and hadn't lost one.

Mr. MVP

Take it from Terry Pendleton, last year's winner and an early favorite to repeat this year, there is no contest for the National League MVP award. The Atlanta third baseman says Gary Sheffield is the hands-down winner.

"I've got to be honest," said Pendleton. "I'd vote for Gary Sheffield. I know guys will think I'm crazy for saying that -- but that's the way it should be. Look at his [Sheffield's] numbers -- how can you vote for anybody else?"

Going into the weekend, Sheffield was hitting .411 in his past 29 games (46-for-112), with 16 doubles, seven home runs and 21 RBI. For the season, the former Milwaukee malcontent who found a home at third base in San Diego is batting over .400 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Extra bases

Pittsburgh pitchers have given up nine pinch-hit home runs this season. The Pirates' hitters haven't hit one since the departed Curtis Wilkerson did it last September. . . . Jeff D. Robinson (the ex-Angel, not ex-Oriole) typified the Cubs' series against the Expos early last week. A sweep of the three games would have put the Cubs one game out of second place. They lost all three to drop seven back. Robinson was 2-0 before starting and losing the game on Monday. A day later he pitched the 17th inning, and his record dropped to 2-2.

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