The evening came full circle. Cal Ripken received a standing ovation last night when the Orioles announced he had signed a five-year, $30.5 million contract. Two hours later, he was booed by the sellout crowd at Camden Yards when he grounded into a double play in the fifth inning of another discouraging defeat.
It has been that kind of year.
Ripken would love to have celebrated the signing of baseball's largest guaranteed contract with a gold-plated performance, but he went hitless in four at-bats and made an error.
"The whole season has been an emotional roller coaster," Ripken said. "I didn't take any of that personally. The fans are out there to be entertained. They want to see you do things to win. The booing is just a reaction to something they didn't like."
Still, in all, it was not a bad 32nd birthday. Ripken signed a contract that will pay him an average of $6.1 million per year through the 1997 season. If he plays in the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards next year, it will be as an Oriole. If he breaks Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak in 1995, it will be as an Oriole. Very likely, he will finish a Hall of Fame career as an Oriole and spend a few years working in the front office.
"I still don't have a smile on my face because of tonight's game," he said, "but deep down inside I'm overjoyed that I'm going to be an Oriole. In my heart, I've always been an Oriole and -- I guess I can say this now -- I never wanted to be anything else."
His intentions had remained something of a mystery during the five months since he reportedly turned down a five-year deal worth $30 million in spring training. There was speculation that he wanted out of Baltimore because the pressures of playing at home had begun to infringe too heavily on his family life. There was concern that the seemingly stalemated negotiations had soured him on the organization.
Ripken would not say what made him turn down a similar contract last spring, but he said his heart always was in Baltimore.
"When you're a younger player, the only consideration is baseball," he said. "When you get older, there are other things you have to consider."
He declined to say what those other things were, but they apparently didn't hold much sway when his statistics began to suffer and the season began to get away. Ripken admitted last week that the contract had become a major distraction. That apparently persuaded him to push for a quick resolution of the contract dispute.
"I felt some sense of urgency and I think the team felt some as well -- obviously, or this would not have gotten done as quickly as it did," he said. "I wanted to get it behind me and I didn't want it to become a distraction for the team."
Though Ripken said that he never wanted to leave Baltimore, he admitted that he had to consider the possibility when the contract dispute headed into the second half of the season. The club has never been free with its money. His season was deteriorating. The contract negotiations seemed to be going nowhere.
"In the beginning, you think there's a 5 percent chance you might not be back," he said, "then you start thinking that there might be something going on that you don't know about. Maybe you're not in somebody's plans. There was a point when I wondered if I might not get a chance to remain an Oriole."
The contract negotiations lasted almost a year, which is a lot of time to think about the various possibilities. But Ripken said he did not spend a lot of time thinking about alternatives to finishing his career in Baltimore.
"I never pictured myself in another uniform," he said. "I thought about it. You go through the minor leagues and you play winter ball and you play for a lot of different teams. I didn't want to [leave the Orioles], but I knew if I was pushed I could have."
No one will ever know. Ripken doesn't have to think about it anymore. He can concentrate on pulling out of a lengthy slump and helping the Orioles down the stretch. There still is the small matter of the American League East race.
He hasn't had a chance to count his millions, but he counted himself very fortunate last night.
"I shake my head and think, how can anyone be deserving of that," he said. "Those are the salary figures that are being thrown around these days, but I'd be doing this even if I wasn't getting anything for it."