It isn't easy to get a glimpse inside the Cal Ripken contract negotiations, just as it isn't easy to get a look inside the man himself, but the Orioles shortstop finally let his guard down a little this week.
His contract situation has become a regional obsession, and now he is willing to say that it has become a burden that may have contributed to his disappointing performance during the first 4 1/2 months of the 1992 season.
"There are reasons and there have been distractions," Ripken said. "The contract has been a distraction, yes. I think I would have handled things differently knowing what I know now. I might have done things differently, maybe choosing not to negotiate during the season or putting it off to the end.
"I thought that I could deal with it more effectively than I have."
Ripken has tried to keep the business end of his playing career out of the public eye, particularly this season, the final year of a four-year contract with the Orioles. He has succeeded to some degree by declining to discuss it and agreeing with the team to keep the day-to-day progress of the negotiations out of the papers, but he has not succeeded in keeping it out of mind.
He has struggled through an up-and-down season that bears no resemblance to the performance in 1991 that earned him his second American League Most Valuable Player Award. He is batting .251 with 10 home runs and 55 RBI. He has not hit a home run since June 23 -- the longest power outage of his career -- and seems likely to end a string of 10 straight seasons with 20 homers or more.
He will celebrate his 32nd birthday Monday, but he is confidenthat age is not the issue.
"If last year didn't happen, you might look in the mirror and wonder if maybe your skills are starting to deteriorate," Ripken said. "But after last year, that's the farthest thing from my mind."
Last year, he hit .323 with 34 home runs and 114 RBI. He led the major leagues in total bases and extra-base hits. He led the American League in every defensive category relative to his position and won his first Gold Glove Award. It was, by all accounts, one of the best all-around performances by a shortstop in major-league history.
What happened? Could a contract dispute have become that much of a distraction?
Ripken has dodged that question for months, but he said this week that the emotional highs and lows associated with the contract negotiations have taken a toll.
"It's not a matter of being something that sits on your back every day," he said. "It's a matter of negotiations. You think something might be accomplished and the excitement level goes up. Then nothing happens and it goes down. Then there is a period of disappointment that lingers for a while. Then you get back to normal and it heats up again. It's a constant up-and-down ride."
But it's not that simple. There also has been a series of nagging injuries. He was hit on the elbow by a pitch in April and didn't shake the soreness for several weeks. There was a pitch from Minnesota Twins left-hander John Smiley that hit him in the back July 3 and still may be affecting his hitting mechanics, though he steadfastly refuses to use that as an excuse for his flat offensive performance.
"I tried to duplicate the feeling and mechanics of how I hit last year," Ripken said. "Obviously, that's just common sense. It could all be mental. There have been periods when I got back and found it and did pretty well."
Ripken's offensive struggles have been magnified by the strong performance of the two batters ahead of him in the lineup. Brady Anderson is on the way to a major-league record for RBI by a leadoff hitter and No. 2 hitter Mike Devereaux is leading the team with 82 RBI.
"I think it's a little exaggerated," said first baseman Randy Milligan, who also has struggled to produce runs, "because you look at Brady and Devo doing so well and then look at the 3, 4 and 5 spots. But I think we've all done our parts to make this team successful. I don't think you can judge what Cal has done and what I have done just by the numbers."
Manager Johnny Oates agrees. He has long maintained that he would happily settle for Ripken's career averages in the run production categories, numbers that still are not out of the question in 1992.
"Cal probably won't be happy with that because he demands so much of himself, but there are a lot of things Cal brings to the ballpark even when he's not getting a hit or driving in a run," Oates said. "Look at his 11-year career. He's not going to hit .320 and drive in 114 runs every year. He's a little off his career numbers, but not anything to be alarmed about."
Still, the eight-week home run drought has become a concern. Expectations may have been inflated by his performance in 1991, but he always has hit homers with regularity. Ripken says the drought is not a result of physical limitation.
Ripken has speculated that he might be trying too hard, that he wants desperately to contribute more to the club's surprising run at the American League East title and that he has had a difficult time keeping his mind entirely on his work.
"Everyone knows that I'm frustrated," he said, "but I'm going out there and playing every day and trying to get out of it. I'm not running away from it."
It always seems to come back to the contract negotiations, which remain secret. Ripken reportedly turned down a five-year offer worth $30 million during spring training, but that has been the only significant news leak since the bargaining began. The talks between attorney Ron Shapiro and the Orioles apparently are ongoing -- although Ripken toyed with a question about the possibility of cutting them off until the end of the season.
"Even if I did decide to do that," he said, "you probably wouldn't know about it."
Minnesota Twins center fielder Kirby Puckett, who also is in the final year of a multi-year contract and also is represented by Shapiro, did cut off negotiations after the Twins rejected his five-year, $27.5 million request a few months ago. Now, he ranks among the league leaders in batting average, runs, hits and RBI, leaving plenty of room to surmise that he made the right decision.
"That could be," Ripken said. "It depends on the individual. Maybe Kirby is a person who felt that he could not deal with it and put it out of his mind. It could have been that that resolved it for him."
Orioles fans have become increasingly concerned that the Ripken situation will not be resolved before the end of the season. The possibility of his becoming a free agent and leaving has been a staple of local radio talk shows all season.
"There have been assumptions made because I'm not signed -- like I don't want to be here," he said. "A lot of assumptions are really unfair. It could just be that negotiations shouldn't be done until your contract is up. It could be a situation where these are just the games that are played in negotiations."
Ripken won't go hungry, one way or the other, which is why it is hard for some to understand why the contract uncertainty is weighing on him. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere beyond the dollars and cents.
"That's your life out there," teammate Mike Flanagan said. "When you give your heart and soul out there every day, the last thing you want to hear in November was what you didn't do.
"Me, I just wanted to be paid what I was worth, but how do you determine that with a guy like Cal? Who has ever gone to the bargaining table with the credentials he has? He's the best player playing every day at the toughest position on the field."
If Ripken is unhappy with the way the Orioles have handled his negotiations, he hasn't let on. He seems more interested in salvaging his season with a significant contribution to the club's stretch drive.
"I think that's possible," Ripken said. "As up-and-down a roller-coaster season as it has been personally, this season we have a real opportunity to do something special as a team."