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Owner playing chicken with No. 8

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Of all the monstrous illogic and public relations bungling that the Orioles have foisted upon their fan base the last several years, what they now contemplate could trump anything seen before. Peter Angelos may dare Cal Ripken to finish his career in another uniform.

Give the Orioles credit for inconsistency, if nothing else.

Angelos promised outfielder Eric Davis in 1997 that he would assume the $2.5 million option for 1998 whether or not Davis returned following June cancer surgery. It was a sincere move that Davis never will forget.

However, after 20 years and more than 2,800 games with this franchise, is it a stretch to say Ripken deserves a similar assurance?

Perhaps so.

Like many other issues that have recently confronted the front office, this one is muddied by personality conflicts and ego. It is what cost the Orioles Rafael Palmeiro, Charles Johnson, and what may ultimately cost them Mike Mussina.

Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, who literally wrote the book on non-confrontational negotiations, apparently barely ranks ahead of the despised Scott Boras among Angelos' enemies of the state.

Shapiro's crime originated with his representation of departed announcer Jon Miller. Angelos maintains that he didn't force Miller out; he says Miller quit. What has evolved is a game of negotiating chicken. Ripken does not feel it is his place or his responsibility to approach the organization about a deal for next season. Meanwhile, Angelos hasn't directly contacted Ripken or Shapiro.

When asked, Ripken says he is focused on proving to himself that he can play with his surgically repaired lower back.

But that answer begs another question: Wouldn't he have a better chance at a complete return if he rested the remainder of this season, rehabilitated further in the winter and used spring training as a testing ground?

While maintaining his back has been cooperative, Ripken suggested as early as the All-Star break that his return was close. It instead took him nearly six more weeks to sprint again and nearly two months to return to the lineup as a designated hitter rather than at third base.

To believe Ripken is now pain-free is to believe in tooth fairies and a legitimate strike zone.

True, Ripken is 40, and his back means he can no longer be counted upon to play 140 games in a season. If there is reluctance to grant a $6.3 million contract, performance incentives could be added to a smaller base salary. Nothing radical there.

Ripken's stated desire to play again is sincere. Why else endure another round of exhaustive rehabilitation and potentially risky pounding to rejoin a team destined for no better than fourth place this season and unlikely to contend in 2001?

No significant statistical milestones tease Ripken. He's not going to match Brooks Robinson's franchise record for triples or Brady Anderson's stolen base standard. Ripken could eclipse Robinson's record of 2,986 games played and become only the ninth player to reach 3,000. He could get his 600th career double. But those numbers hardly compare with last season's 400th home run or this year's 3,000th hit.

This isn't the first time Ripken has played in the dark.

Last year, he landed on the disabled list in May with back pain so severe he could barely walk.

The club held an option for this season to be exercised at the All-Star break. The club gave no indication of its plans until after Ripken returned. Rather than celebrate the announcement at sold-out Camden Yards, the club delayed until the first of a three-game series in Philadelphia to matter-of-factly release its decision in a news release.

The Orioles have squeezed much from Ripken the past several years. Rather than hold to his original plan to end The Streak by sitting out the final game of the '98 season in Boston, he reconsidered at his wife Kelly's urging to make Sept. 20 a local celebration. It became the most moving event of an otherwise drab and disappointing season.

Lest someone counter that there is no on-field reason for extending Ripken, consider what the minor-league system and upcoming free-agent class have to offer.

The decision to return 26-year-old Ryan Minor to Rochester less than two weeks before rosters expanded helped underscore the opinion that he will never fulfill his promise as Ripken's heir. Manager Mike Hargrove recently noted Minor's seeming discomfort at this level. After citing Minor's impressive tools - indeed, some Orioles player development types believe Minor could show Matt Williams power if allowed to play regularly - Hargrove added, "Whether he will ever play here or in the big leagues remains to be seen."

Regarded as an outstanding defensive player at Rochester, Minor has appeared stiff and ponderous with the Orioles. A recent muscle pull didn't help. Jeff Conine, utility player Mark Lewis and even prospect Ivanon Coffie have played ahead of him.

The Orioles' flurry of waiver deadline trades netted them two third basemen, Mike Kinkade from the New York Mets for Mike Bordick and Jose Leon from the St. Louis Cardinals for Will Clark.

The Orioles allowed Kinkade, a more comfortable catcher, to join Team USA rather than provide him an extended look this month. Leon isn't on the 40-man roster. The organization's top third base prospect, Tripper Johnson, was a sandwich pick in this year's amateur draft.

This winter's free-agent market offers little at the position. The Houston Astros' Ken Caminiti is a former MVP, but his season has been marred by injury and a recent absence, reportedly to seek assistance for substance abuse.

If the Orioles botch this one, mandatory testing might be ordered for the front office. The possibility of Ripken playing his final season in another uniform, in another town - what a legacy for this ownership to craft.

None of this may matter, of course. Ripken may, indeed, decide to retire at season's end. If so, he promised earlier this season to keep it a secret until the final hour. Since last January, rumors of ticket hoarding by the front office for the season's final game have been rampant.

Perfect.

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