What once appeared to be the Orioles' hard-line stance against negotiating a contract extension with catcher Charles Johnson apparently has softened. The club has contacted Johnson's agent, Scott Boras, about resuming negotiations for the first time since February, according to a club source.
A pending free agent, Johnson is enjoying a career offensive season, having already set a career high with 20 home runs while batting .303 with 48 RBIs and a team- high .594 slugging percentage. Johnson's defensive excellence has also caused pending free-agent pitcher Mike Mussina to cite the catcher's return as a consideration in his negotiations as well.
The Orioles called Boras, according to the source, but did not extend a firm offer. However, simply making an overture carries meaning given what has historically been a confrontational relationship between Boras and Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos that dates back to Boras' representation of pitcher Ben McDonald in the mid-1990s.
Johnson so far has pressed for a five-year contract; the Orioles, still smarting from the five-year deal awarded catcher Chris Hoiles be fore the 1995 season, tried to avoid a February arbitration hearing by offering a three-year deal. The club is apparently willing to improve its bid to four years.
Johnson, who turns 29 on Thursday, is the Orioles' youngest everyday position player. He has expressed a desire to remain in Baltimore but until recently thought he would be traded before the July 31 waiver deadline.
Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift confirmed last week that the club was not ready to concede Johnson's departure. "Some assumptions aren't correct," Thrift said.
The St. Louis Cardinals have interest in the four-time Gold Glove winner and the Florida Marlins are intrigued by the possibility of reacquiring Johnson to tend to a highly rated crop of young pitchers expected to blossom next season.
Ripken hits, throws -- gently
Resuming baseball-related activities for the first time since going on the disabled list, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken has hit off a tee and done some throwing the past two days while intent on playing again this season.
"I'm in no way willing to concede that I can't put the uniform on yet," he said.
Ripken had remained inactive since receiving a second cortisone injection on June 28 to quiet a nerve irritation in his lower back.
Given approval from the medical staff to enter the indoor batting cage, Ripken took about 20 easy swings on Sunday and didn't report any problems. He also did some exercises to strengthen his back and left leg and planned on hitting again yesterday, perhaps increasing the number of swings and seeing how his body responded the next morning.
"I've had a day to feel what the effects are and I feel pretty good to day. I was surprised," said Ripken, speaking to reporters for the first time since the All-Star break.
Though encouraged by his progress, Ripken admitted the improvement has been "slower than I would like." He also said the burning sensation down his leg mostly has subsided, but he still experiences some numbness.
"I still feel sometimes like the leg is starting to fall asleep, or you have some feeling from the nerve, but nothing excruciating," he said.
"I had been going a little stir- crazy. I was able to do some things yesterday so I was happy about that."
Ripken, who continues to take anti-inflammatory medicine, hasn't set a timetable for his return. He still must simulate the jarring movements, like running and jumping, that can spike the nerve and make simple acts like walking and sitting too painful.
"It all depends how I feel on a day-to-day basis," he said. "I would assume I'll throw a little more to day and do a little more in the weight room, maybe simulate some fielding where you're bend ing and throwing."
Ripken's average had dipped to .239, with 13 homers and 43 RBIs in 62 games, before going on the disabled list for the third time in his career. He briefly considered playing in the All-Star Game after being elected for the 16th time, but didn't want to jeopardize return ing to the Orioles. He said he watched the event on television, with conflicting emotions tugging at him, especially when the players were introduced with the children.
"The reaction from both of my kids was, 'Are those the players' kids on the field?' And I said, 'I think so.' That was the part they were most interested in and I thought that was a cool thing."
As for speculation that he would retire, which mounted when he chose not to attend the All-Star Game, Ripken said, "I find it comical more so than worrisome that I'm that important that someone would actually create and start rumors. I hear some of those things and I wonder where those things came from.
It's very simple. I enjoy being a baseball player and to be in uniform. The first part of this year there were some challenges from surgery and rehab, but I felt like I was swinging the bat well. I was happy with the way I was moving and the way I was playing. I'd like to let this [nerve irritation] die down. I'll be a lot health ier and pain-free and put the uniform on and go out and see what happens."
Timlin: Closer without title
Though he has saved the Orioles' last four wins, Mike Timlin hasn't been anointed the closer again. It's more of an unspoken role, with no cumbersome titles to weigh him down.
Club officials prefer not to heap pressure upon Timlin, who has converted 11 of 15 opportunities, by naming him the closer. He'll just be handed the ball in most save sit uations as he was last night, when he used only 11 pitches in a 1-2-3 ninth.
"I'm going to hold off making that pronouncement," Hargrove said. "Right now he's doing a good job. We'll just leave it at that."