Cal Ripken got a $30.5 million contract on his 32nd birthday, but there was no celebration.
No quiet dinner with his wife, Kelly. No family gathering for a toast to success and security.
Instead, at 12.30 a.m., a half-hour after he had concluded a news conference, Ripken pulled off his uniform -- and put on his workout clothes. His birthday and the signing of a new contract coincided with the post-game workout schedule Ripken religiously adheres to every other day, and this wasn't an exception.
In an empty clubhouse, in the midst of the supposedly dog days of August, there was a very clear message. The money the Orioles have invested in Ripken has as much to do with work ethics and personal values as it does with Hall of Fame ability.
General manager Roland Hemond had alluded to the fact shortly after Ripken had signed his new five-year contract, less than an hour before Monday night's game against the California Angels. "Cal was concerned that he wouldn't get back to the field in time for infield practice," said Hemond. "That says something about him.
"I understand that through all the games of his streak [1,699], he's never missed infield practice -- and that is remarkable. The work ethic he brings with him is an example for every player in our organization."
Pitcher Mike Flanagan, who has watched him from the start of his career in 1981, marvels at Ripken's ability to concentrate on the job at hand. "I don't know if I've ever seen anyone with the ability to stay as completely focused as he does, despite all the distractions," said Flanagan. "He's an amazing person."
rTC Flanagan's observation is particularly significant in view of Ripken's admission that he felt the contract negotiations had become a distraction that affected that ability to remain focused.
"The magnitude of the contract, the numbers, brought along its own baggage, it's own pressure, a whole lot more than I thought it would," Ripken said after having had time to reflect on the last few months. "But ultimately I don't think that was it [the reason he's struggled this year].
RF "I don't know -- I don't have all the answers in my own mind as to
why I became frustrated. I have to look inside myself and think about it."
One possible reason, he admits, was the possibility that he might not be able to remain with the Orioles. "I'm from here," he said, "and I can't accentuate that enough. I'm from here, I'm an Oriole, I've been an Oriole fan all my life and I couldn't picture myself in another uniform."
It was the lingering doubt about doing just that that toyed with his mind. "As time went on, I started to think that maybe there are situations I didn't know about -- that maybe somebody didn't have plans for me. The longer it went on I started to think that maybe I wouldn't be allowed to be an Oriole."
As is the case in any contract negotiation, money, of course, was the key issue. But that is something Ripken has never complained about, and perhaps nobody can appreciate that firsthand more than his brother Bill, the Orioles second baseman, who understands how players react in such situations.
"The past few years Cal has been low [in salary] among the top-ranked players, but you never heard him talk about re-negotiating his con
tract," said Bill. "There have been a lot of players, after a season like Cal had [last year] who want to negotiate.
"But he stuck with the terms of his contract. My brother values his word. He never bitched, like a lot of players have."
Yesterday, Ripken signed the biggest guaranteed contract in baseball history, and even though most agree it fits into the current market value of a player of his stature, he agrees that the dollars are mind-boggling. "Those numbers to a normal person makes them shake their head," he said. "I shake my head all the time.
"Sometimes it's hard to explain how anyone can be deserving of that. Maybe there is no explanation. But there is a business side and those are the salary figures that are thrown around. This is my talent, this is what I enjoy doing. I just feel lucky that [the salary] is part of it."
Ripken is currently in the last year of a four-year contract that pays him $2.1 million per season. It was signed in 1988, when baseball was judged guilty of collusion, but that never became a major issue.
"I never felt that I was underpaid," he said. "That contract gave me a tremendous amount of security, allowed me to do a lot of things financially. You sign a contract and you live up to your contract. I take the same view with the magnitude of this contract as I did with the magnitude of the other contract."
Although refusing to blame his sub-par numbers on the "distraction" of the contract, Ripken hopes it will signal a resurgence. "I'm hopeful it will give me a fresh start," he said. "I'm not going to make any promises, because who knows that [negotiations] might not have been the problem anyway."
It remained for Kelly, who said she thought she was more nervous about the negotiations than Cal, to put everything in perspective. "Now I just hope he can enjoy the pennant race," she said.
"Last year, even though he was having a great year, something was missing. He really couldn't enjoy it," she said. This [year] has been the flip side of that -- he hasn't done as well as he'd like, but the team's in the race."
For now that, and his new contract, is enough consolation for Ripken. The next six weeks could provide even more.