For months, the Baltimore Orioles have been saying they may wait until near the Dec. 15 deadline before deciding whether to pick up their option on first baseman-designated hitter Ron Kittle.
The Orioles' position hasn't changed, but Kittle's turned into something slightly less confusing than nuclear fusion Thursday, when he added his name to the list of major-league players seeking free agency.
The move raised a couple of questions, including this elementary one: Does Kittle, or any baseball player, have the right to declare himself free when he really isn't? At least not yet?
Yesterday, some answers emerged. After discussing the Kittle case for several days, the Major League Players Association and the Player Relations Committee, the representatives of baseball labor and management, respectively, tentatively agreed that Kittle isn't a free agent now and won't be until the Orioles' option deadline passes in December. The other 25 major-league teams are prohibited from contacting Kittle during that time.
And Jim Bronner, Kittle's agent, sought to clarify his client's intentions, saying that the player decided to file for free agency only to protect himself in the event the Orioles decide they don't want him back.
"We're not trying to cause anybody problems. We fully recognize the club has this option," Bronner said.
What remains murky is whether Kittle immediately becomes a free agent if he is not signed by the Orioles by Dec. 15.
Bronner says he does, by having met the free-agent filing deadline. Eligible players are required to file within two weeks after the end of the World Series.
It's not clear what the Orioles think, but it could be to their advantage to take the position that Kittle's claim of free agency isn't valid. In that case, the Orioles could decline to pick up his option -- at a guaranteed $600,000 salary -- and buy him out for $100,000. Then, if they acted by Dec. 20, they automatically could renew Kittle with a non-guaranteed contract, and even could cut his 1990 salary by 20 percent. Kittle, 32, earned $550,000 last season.
A non-guaranteed contract conceivably would give the Orioles greater flexibility. For example, they could invite Kittle to spring training and, if they cut him, be responsible for only one-sixth his salary.
Kittle's confusing situation is the result of an odd provision in a contract that the player personally negotiated with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. When options are included in player contracts, team officials usually have until only mid-October to exercise them. That gives the player plenty of time to file for free agency if his option isn't picked up.
Kittle negotiated a contract that gives him no time.
"Based on the facts we have, no one intended for that [to happen]," said Gene Orza, associate general counsel of the players' association. "The date should have been Oct. 15."
Said Bronner, who was not involved in negotiating Kittle's White Sox contract: "This date probably should not have been used. It should have been a date in October so we didn't have this problem."
Kittle batted .231 last season with 18 home runs and 46 RBI. Only 61 of his 338 at-bats were in an Orioles uniform.