The baseball season never really ends. The competition just moves to a different kind of field after the regular season is complete. It is a field of fax machines, telephones and Teletypes -- a field where the game really is played on paper. A field of reams.
Baltimore Orioles general manager Roland Hemond has played on that field long enough to be familiar with the landscape. But the winter that lies ahead remains largely uncharted, thanks to a summer that didn't go quite the way the club had planned.
The 1990 season raised more questions than it answered, throwing into doubt an organizational strategy that seemed so clear-cut a year ago. The bloom has come off the rosy outlook that grew out of 1989, even though the club's developmental system did make significant progress this year.
Decisions. Decisions. Hemond, club president Larry Lucchino and manager Frank Robinson say the Orioles will go into the winterr with an open mind, if not an open wallet, but it remains to be seen if the front office will exhibit the resolve and the resources to build a contender for 1991.
No doubt, every option will be explored as the Orioles prepare for their final season at Memorial Stadium, but some options are more expensive than others. The free-agent market will be open for business soon (filing begins the day after the last game of the World Series), but the team's stated willingness to consider a significant free-agent purchase has been met with a measure of skepticism.
There are no guarantees that one multimillion-dollar player radically would improve the club's chances of winning the American League East next year. Just ask the California Angels, who spent $16 million on pitcher Mark Langston and took a step backward. But there also is not sufficient evidence that the club has made enough developmental progress to show immediate improvement without outside help.
Hemond spent the 1990 season making waiver claims and signing castaways from other organizations. It will take more than that to alter the divisional balance of power in time for spring training '91.
The front office is aglow with the promising reports that emanated from every corner of the player-development system during the annual organizational meeting a couple of weeks ago, but that could have served only as a counter-argument on the free-agent question. Is patience a virtue, or isn't it?
There is no right answer here. This is a no-win situation for the club, which may appear cheap if it does not spend some money this off-season, and risks appearing shortsighted if it does. Having the lowest payroll in the majors is nice, but only until it's reflected in the product.
To spend or not to spend? That is not the only question facing the Orioles as they head into what should be a busy off-season, but it is one of several that will have to be answered before the team takes the field again. Here's a look at some of them:
* Will help arrive in time? There has been some sentiment within the organization that a front-line starting pitcher would be the perfect cornerstone for the promising young rotation, and a power-hitting outfielder would fit nicely into the power-hungry Orioles lineup. Who you gonna call?
Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Ted Higuera is the top starter among this year's free-agent eligibles, but he's looking for a three-year contract worth $3 million per year after another injury-marred season. Toronto Blue Jays left-hander Bud Black is a less costly possibility, but he's not the can't-miss pitcher the Orioles would be looking for. Boston Red Sox right-hander and former Oriole Mike Boddicker seems more realistic.
The big hitter might be hard to find even if money were not an object. The free-agent rolls include late-season Red Sox hero Tom Brunansky and another outfielder, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kirk Gibson, but the price will be high, and there has been no indication that either is interested in playing in Baltimore.
Cleveland Indians outfielder Cory Snyder probably will be traded this winter, but he has struggled at the plate the past couple of years * Is Mickey coming back? Catcher Mickey Tettleton has been the mystery man of 1990, both at the plate and in the Orioles' plans.
There was a time early in the season when it seemed inconceivable that the Orioles would allow Tettleton to file for free agency and leave the club. Now, that seems very possible, thanks to a season in which Tettleton slumped badly at the outset and down the stretch.
There is no question that Tettleton's value has dropped considerably over the past three months. There is a question whether he'll recognize that and settle for less to stay in Baltimore. He still figures to draw some serious money on the open market, but the Orioles figure to be reluctant to guarantee more than a couple of seasons.