It's too bad, but Tettleton's going, going . . .

MIKE LITTWIN

November 05, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you haven't already, it's time to start thinking seriously about a going-away gift for Mickey Tettleton. It looks as if the Mick and Toucan Sam are about to leave the nest.

The price of doing business has gone up, and you know how the fiscally responsible Orioles are about rising prices, especially when they're the ones paying them.

If the Orioles intended to re-sign Tettleton, their catcher-turned-free agent, they probably would have already completed the deal because -- and this is a dead giveaway -- signing him now would almost certainly cost them more than it would have yesterday.

As of now, all teams are eligible to negotiate with free agents, and there are perhaps a half-dozen teams, maybe twice that, interested in talking to Tettleton, a switch-hitting, power-hitting catcher. He's a commodity, as the market will clearly indicate, even if the Orioles aren't buying.

Now, I can't say for certain the Orioles are not interested, because Orioles management, believing fervently in the public's right not to know, has said only that it won't negotiate in the media. But from what I can tell, the Orioles haven't done that much negotiating outside the media either.

According to reports, the Orioles have offered a one-year contract. Yeah, I'm serious. Why would Tettleton, at 30 years of age, settle for a one-year deal when someone is going to offer him three years for a total of at least $5 million, maybe $6 million, maybe $7 million, maybe more?

The Orioles couldn't help but notice what the Phillies paid last week to keep free-agent catcher Darren Daulton, whose best season, which he just completed, was only marginally better than Tettleton's season of horrors, which he just completed. The Phillies, saying you have to hang on to your own players, gave Daulton $6.75 million over three years. Yes, that's more than Cal Ripken makes. Yes, that's what the market requires. When Daulton signed his contract, that may have been the beginning of the end of Tettleton as an Oriole.

All Daulton has ever done is have one pretty good second half last season, although not nearly as impressive as the second half Jeff Rutledge turned in yesterday. Tettleton has a track record. He has hit as many as 26 homers in a season. Even when he was striking out 160 times last season, he hit 15 homers, third on the club, to go with 51 RBI. Daulton, who was a .206 lifetime hitter before hitting .268 last season, had 12 homers and 57 RBI.

In my view, Tettleton suffered through as bad a year as it is possible for him to have. By the way, Frank Robinson holds the same view.

Tettleton wants to stay with the Orioles, who are not only his first choice, but also his first through fifth choices. He found himself here. He became an All-Star here. He loves it here. But the Orioles, or at least those who sign the checks, have fallen out of love with him. Maybe it's just the strikeouts. More likely, it's the price tag.

If Tettleton leaves, the Orioles would have Bob Melvin, a fine backup, and Chris Hoiles, a basically untested rookie, to fill his spot. That is clearly not enough. It isn't that Tettleton is a great player so much as it is that he is the best catcher they have. If someone else is willing to pay him the money, why aren't the Orioles?

It isn't too late, but, if you believe as I do, there is no reason to be encouraged.

Already, the Orioles have failed to pick up an option on Joe Price, a veteran left-handed reliever who would have made $400,000. They said that he has a bad back that may go out at any time. sure that's true. I'm pretty sure, too, that if Price made $120,000, or whatever the minimum is today, he'd be back. The funny thing is that on almost any other club, a $400,000 player is considered a bargain. But not on the Orioles, who, as we all know and as we can surely recite together, have the lowest payroll in the majors. Which keeps getting lower.

I can't help but wonder about those who believe the Orioles should let Tettleton go, saying that he's not worth the money. Well, who is? Was Buster Douglas worth $24 million? It comes down to this: Whom would you rather see with the money, owner Eli Jacobs or player Mickey Tettleton?

The fans wouldn't pay for Tettleton, except very indirectly. Ticket prices are not going up next season, regardless of the size of the payroll. And they will go up, perhaps considerably, in 1992, when the new stadium opens, again regardless of the size of the payroll.

The Orioles, after drawing 4.9 million fans over the last two seasons, have the money. I think they should use it to sign George Bell or Ted Higuera or both. I don't know if either wants to come here. I know Tettleton wants to stay, though. And I know the Orioles, unless they make some impressive off-season moves, would not be as good without him.

Of course, the Orioles might sign Tettleton today and surprise us all. Or maybe they'll do the right thing, allowing Tettleton to see what he is worth on the open market and then assessing what he would take to stay as an Oriole. It's possible. And it's also possible that Froot Loops really do help you hit home runs.

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