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Agent Shapiro sounds an optimistic note about Cal's future here


Don't despair, Cal Ripken Jr. fans.

As the season grows late and free agency looms for the Orioles' franchise player, the general public seems to have increasing fear that Cal will test the free agent waters this fall.

But the man who represents Ripken, Baltimore lawyer Ron Shapiro -- who has a long history of being able to keep his Oriole clients here -- sounded hopeful the other day.

"You know me," Shapiro said. "I'm an optimist. I always think things will work out."

Not quite always.

Early in the season Shapiro was expressing doubts that there would be a new contract that would keep the soon-to-be 32-year-old shortstop in Baltimore for the rest of his career. And that was after the club offered $30 million for five years.

It concerns some Orioles fans that Shapiro's other franchise client, Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, who will also be a free agent after this season, is unsigned, too.

Not only that, talks have broken off between the immensely popular Puckett and the Twins.

"What happened out there," explains Shapiro, "is that Kirby agreed to sign for less than market value [around $7 million yearly to the so-called franchise player].

"Kirby agreed to that because the Minnesota club's income is only about half what Baltimore's is. The Twins only take in about $45 million a year. The Orioles earn about $80 million.

"But when general manager Andy MacPhail told the owner, Carl Pohlad, what Kirby was willing to do, the owner, instead of agreeing, said he wanted to think about it. That's what ended negotiations."

* Larry Bird retired this week and, quite properly, we are seeing a string of glowing tributes to the future NBA Hall of Famer.

My lasting memory of Bird is not from any of the championship heroics he performed for the Celtics. It is, believe it or not, of an exhibition game played here in the Baltimore Arena four years ago.

The Celts were blowing out the Bullets on a Saturday night in October and ahead lay a grueling 82-game season (plus playoffs).

I know from experience how lightly professional athletes sometimes take exhibition games. Bird, we saw that night on Baltimore street, is incapable of taking any game lightly. He can only play at one speed.

In that meaningless show, Bird rebounded hard, he started the fast break, he played tough defense, and he ran the court as if he were in a playoff game.

If I had ever wondered what it was that made Larry Bird great, I never wondered again after that night. This talented man is a warrior.

In the last two years, back problems have curtailed Bird's game. We were no longer seeing the real Larry Legend -- except for one night this year, March 15, when he magically played like the Larry of old. He scored 49 points and led the Celts to a 152-148 double-overtime win over Portland.

It was reminiscent of the last hurrah of another Boston sports immortal, Ted Williams of the Red Sox.

In the final at-bat of his career, Williams -- then 42 years old -- hit a home run. It came against the Orioles. Jack Fisher delivered the pitch, and Williams sent it over Jack Brandt's head into the bullpen in center field.

And so the Larry Bird era is over and it will never be forgotten. Today it is truer than ever that the future of the Celtic franchise is Reggie Lewis, the former Dunbar High sixth man.

* Speaking of Dunbar, people at College Park are holding their breath over the Kevin Washington situation.

Washington is the 19-year-old Dunbar grad who was a redshirt freshman football receiver at Maryland until last Saturday, when he was arrested on theft and forgery charges.

Washington is the first Dunbar grad to receive a football scholarship to Maryland. Coach Mark Duffner says the young man is off the team "indefinitely."

The rub here is the troubled relationship between Maryland and Dunbar going back to Ernest Graham and running through Bob Wade. Dunbar is the national high school basketball champion and none of its players go to Maryland.

Gary Williams, the Terps basketball coach, has worked hard for three years to heal that wound. He has made progress -- enough progress that it looks as if Dunbar's Keith Booth could be headed for College Park a year from now. He would be an important piece in the puzzle Williams is putting together.

I hope Washington's problem doesn't get in the way of Booth, or any other Dunbar players who consider going to Maryland. I'd like to see the best players in Baltimore stay at home.

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