Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett and Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, two members of that dwindling fraternity of star players who have spent their entire careers in one city, could be playing for new teams in 1993. That notion seems almost incredible, but the longer their contract negotiations drag on, the greater the chances are that one or both of them will move.
Puckett, 31, is probably the more likely to leave, perhaps for Chicago, his hometown, where the Cubs and White Sox are financially stable enough to pay the $30 million to $40 million it will take to sign him for four or five years. The Twins, a small-market team with a projected gross revenue of approximately $40 million for 1992, will have a hard time paying that price. Puckett knows that and would accept less to stay in Minnesota—reportedly $5.5 million a year for five years. But when Twins owner Carl Pohlad recently backed off slightly as negotiations heated up, Puckett told his agent, Ron Shapiro, to end talks until after the season.
"I'm done talking," Puckett said last week. "If I'm here next year, I'm here. If I'm not, I'm not, Maybe they think I'm going to have a bad year this year. But I don't think that's going to happen." Puckett was hitting .344 at week's end.
Ripken is also a Shapiro client, but his situation is quite different from Puckett's because the Orioles are among the healthiest franchises in the game. With a relatively low payroll and fans filling the new Camden Yards ballpark nightly, Baltimore's projected gross revenue for 1992 is estimated to be as high as $80 million. A $30 million to $40 million deal for Ripken is well within the Orioles' means—leaving Ripken to wonder why he has not yet been signed.
Baltimore owner Eli Jacobs apparently has placed financial limits on what club president Larry Lucchino, the Orioles' chief negotiator, can offer Ripken, though neither Lucchino nor Shapiro will comment on the specifics of the negotiations. "There is a giant misconception in the media that we haven't been addressing this," says Lucchino. "We have. And we will continue to work on it."
Ripken was hitting only .258 at week's end and was struggling to find the stroke that won him the American League MVP award last year. But whatever he hits this year, his departure via free agency would be a devastating blow to the Orioles, not only because of his all-around good play but also because his consecutive-game streak could one day make him the hottest attraction in the game. Ripken observed the 10th anniversary of the streak last Saturday—he had played in 1,621 straight games at week's end—and a Baltimore fan recently called the Orioles wanting to buy tickets for a game in late June 1995. That's when the woman figures Ripken will break Lou Gehrig's string of 2,130 games.
There's no figuring Indians outfielder Albert Belle, who for most of his four years in the majors has frustrated and infuriated club officials with his inconsistency on the field and his petulant behavior on and off the field. But he's one of the most dangerous hitters in the league, so they live with him.
Belle's history includes alcoholism (he spent 10 weeks in rehab during the 1990 season), lack of hustle (he was sent to the minor leagues in 1991 for not running out a double play ball) and lack of self-control (he was suspended for six games last year for intentionally hitting a fan in the stands with a baseball and is currently appealing a three-day suspension for going after Royals pitcher Neal Heaton on May 4). But his r�sum� also includes 28 homers and 95 RBIs in 123 games last year. In American League history, only Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Rudy York and Ted Williams had that many homers and RBIs in so few games.