Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday that the club is committed to bringing future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken back for the 2001 season, but Ripken's unsettled contract status will not be addressed until the veteran third baseman is satisfied that he can be a productive everyday player next year.
"There has never been any consideration of Cal not finishing his career with the Orioles," Angelos said last night. "Any suggestion that such is the case is grossly incorrect."
Ripken expects to determine in the next few weeks whether his troublesome lower back will allow him to return next year. He has missed about half of the club's games since the back soreness began to affect his play early last season, but still holds out hope that he will be able to re-establish himself as a full-time player.
He has deferred any substantive comments on his contract situation until he makes that determination. Thrift said Ripken also made it clear during a recent meeting that he didn't want to begin negotiations until he was satisfied he would be able to fulfill a new contract.
Thrift met with Ripken, attorney Ron Shapiro and Ripken's business representative, Ira Rainess, several weeks ago, ostensibly to discuss Ripken's medical situation. The result was a wide-ranging, two-hour discussion during which - according to Thrift - Ripken told him he was interested in returning only if he felt he could play third base on an everyday basis, and discounted the possibility of extending his career as a designated hitter or first baseman.
"The main thing he wanted everybody to know - he did not want to be paid anything if he couldn't play," Thrift said. "I thought it was a very productive session, and I think we all went away with the feeling that everything would be dependent on how he felt, and sometime after that period of him playing in September, he would meet with Peter Angelos and determine how he felt about playing next year."
Ripken apparently doesn't remember it exactly the same way. He said the meeting was a "fact-finding and information-sharing" session about his medical status and does not recall any discussion that directly connected to his contract situation. But he reiterated yesterday his contract status is "a non-issue" and conceded the club might have construed his desire to withhold judgment on his health as tacit approval of a wait-and-see approach to a contract.
If that was a misunderstanding and Ripken does want to negotiate a new deal before the end of the season, he hasn't said so, but his silence on the subject wouldn't be particularly unusual.
"Traditionally, Cal has not talked about his contract status during the season," Shapiro said yesterday. "His focus is on baseball. Now, more than ever, that tradition applies."
Ripken, 40, recently addressed the "hypothetical" aspects of free agency by saying he'll explore all options if the club appears reluctant to bring him back for his 21st season in Baltimore. But, with 19 games remaining in the Orioles' season, Ripken has kept to himself whatever opinions he might have on the lack of substantive talks with the organization.
"That's for another time," he said Saturday. "My time now is devoted to finding out where I am physically."
The Orioles have given indications that Ripken's surgically repaired back will dictate their approach. Last month, Thrift said the organization would wait and see how Ripken responded when he was activated. Since he came off the disabled list Sept. 1, nothing has changed.
Though returns have so far suggest Ripken retains a live bat, he has appeared to labor while running. A diving stop Friday night against the Anaheim Angels "jarred" him. He left the game as expected after three at-bats, contemplated sitting out Saturday's game, then appeared as scheduled as designated hitter.
Friday's game remains Ripken's only appearance at third base since landing on the disabled list June 28 because of nerve inflammation in the back, but Thrift said he got the strong impression during the meeting that he would not be interested in coming back at another position.
"We had a long discussion," Thrift said. "We talked about DH, but he said he wanted to be a position player. We talked about first base, and he gave me a 20-minute dissertation about how different first base was to play and how important a good first baseman is. That was also discounted."
As the Orioles finish their road trip, Ripken's return or possible retirement has become a source of speculation. Ripken, who spoke with Thrift on the field for about 10 minutes before last night's game, has consistently said he will make no determination until the season is done.
Ripken recently expressed enthusiasm for serving as a kind of mentor for younger players as the Orioles continue a rebuilding phase next season. Tutoring some of his youngest teammates has become a part of Ripken's daily routine since he left the disabled list.
Ripken, starting pitchers Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson and outfielder Brady Anderson are the only players remaining from the 1997 team that won the American League East.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: Ballpark in Arlington
Game 1: 6:35 p.m., HTS
Starters: Orioles' Jay Spurgeon (1-0, 5.14) vs. Rangers' Rick Helling (14-11, 4.31)
Game 2 starters: Orioles' John Parrish (2-3, 6.23) vs. Rangers' Kenny Rogers (11-13, 4.63)
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM) for both games