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This is right.

Cal Ripken signs a contract making him an Oriole for another five years, if not for life, and it is just so right.

That that even needs to be said is crazy, given Ripken's unique and enormous contributions to the Orioles for the last decade. Would anyone have bothered to say it a year ago?

But the air is funny around town these days. Ripken is stuck in one of his worst slumps. More than a few fans are wondering if, at 32, he is in decline. Talk show callers were saying good riddance.

So let's back this thing up, back it up beyond all the side issues. Why didn't the Orioles get it done a year ago? Why did Cal turn down $30 million in the spring? Did he lose money this season? How seriously did he contemplate free agency? Let's back up beyond all that to the most basic -- and important -- point of all:

This is right. It is the right ending to the story. Right for the Orioles and right for Ripken. The only ending that made sense: Cal stays in Baltimore, probably for the rest of his career. If you don't think that is right, you're lost in space.

It is so very, very right for the Orioles. These people calling for Ripken's head, who did they have in mind as a replacement? Manny Alexander? He is not nearly ready. Ricky Gutierrez? Please. He's a career .250 hitter in the minors.

And this talk of spending the $30 million on one or two other players -- where was it ever guaranteed that the Orioles would do that? And even if they had, you can be sure they would have skimmed a few million off the top. Cut some corner.

But anyway, the point is that any talk of suitable replacements does Ripken a disservice. It insults him.

How can you replace a player who is always there? A player who does what Ripken does?

The most dependable hands at the game's toughest position -- how do you replace them?

The feeling of relief that washes over the Orioles when the bases are loaded late in a tie game and the hitter swings hard and bounces a ball toward Ripken -- how do you replace that feeling of knowing that the inning is already over?

A player who does not say a word when less-talented players around him start signing bigger contracts, leaving him as underpaid as anyone in the game -- how do you replace that refusal to wreck the team with "gimme mine" whining?

Seventy RBI (or maybe more) in the worst offensive year of his career -- how do you replace that kind of production?

Easy answer: You don't.

Just like you don't put "Diner" in Chicago. Or the Preakness in Indianapolis. Or Johns Hopkins Hospital in San Francisco.

Understand something here. Even in his poorest season, Ripken is the linchpin of these contending Orioles. They begin with him.

See, baseball is a game of failure. The best hitters make outs 70 percent of the time. The average game is lost by a mistake, not won by brilliance. The Orioles are winning this year because they don't give much away. And that starts with Ripken, the game's most dependable player since 1982.

Sure, the Orioles could have gotten away with letting him go. No player is truly a franchise player. It is the nature of the game: one player can't control it. But the Ripken-less Orioles would have looked around a month into 1993 and said, "Boy, remember when there wasn't that big hole over there at shortstop?"

So right.

But as right as this is for the Orioles, it is even more right for Ripken himself. For what it means to his career, to his reputation, to the mark he will leave on the game.

What he wants is to be the next Brooks Robinson. That has been Ripken's goal for years: Play his entire career with one team and go to the Hall of Fame at the end. Even go one step farther than Brooks and do it in his hometown.

Avoid the cold auction of flesh and the rootlessness that have robbed so many current players of their souls.

Make history and become the modern Gehrig -- and do it like Lou did, in one uniform.

As a Yankee or a Dodger, Ripken would have been just another superstar who took the money. Nothing special. A hired gun from out of town.

As an Oriole, probably for life -- he can get out of this deal in three years, but don't count on it, not now -- Ripken will stand out. This will be the headline on his career: Among many who did not stay, here is one who did.

"I'm from Baltimore," Ripken said last night, explaining a lot with a few words. "I just can't accentuate that enough."

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