Thrifty Orioles don't have to save face by spending money

John Steadman

November 16, 1990|By John Steadman

SALARY FIGURES substantiate the fact the Baltimore Orioles had the lowest payroll in all of baseball. That includes 26 major-league teams. This is reason for applause, not derision. These are hard financial times and lavishing money on professional athletes is suddenly not what the working class wants to hear.

The Orioles spent the lowest amount, $7.9 million, on player payroll of any club in the majors in 1990. This is to their credit. Why stuff money in the pockets of the employees for no other reason than to prove you are a liberal spender?

There's no correlation with how much a player is paid and how he produces, or, collectively, the way a team performs. Dollar signs will not motivate an athlete. Take the Chicago White Sox as a refreshing example. They were the second-lowest paying organization, a notch above the Orioles at $9.8 million, yet had the second-best record in the majors.

The Cincinnati Reds had salaries amounting to $14.8 million and won the National League pennant and World Series against an Oakland A's team that collected $7 million more. Clubs such as the Royals, Angels and Mets paid out $21 million-plus and didn't get value received from the high-priced talent.

To finish dead last, with the worst record in baseball, the Yankees paid their slaves $19.3 million. Again, money isn't the answer. In all the time of being around baseball, beginning as a short-term minor-league hopeful, we have never seen or known about a player who was abused.

In the era before free agency, there were occasions when an athlete would have a banner year and was underpaid when compared to a contemporary. But baseball had a way of correcting this inequity. In most cases, an appreciative team would correct the monetary inadequacy by offering a sizable raise at the next contract negotiation.

That's the way it formerly worked. But now players are paid on potential -- not on results. Easily, the smartest executive the game has ever known was Branch Rickey, who operated the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers when they were powers in the National League.

Rickey's philosophy was to "keep 'em hungry," which meant he didn't spoil the personnel on the field, in the majors or in their expansive farm system, with comfortable contract arrangements that deprived them of incentives. How the Orioles have been operating is similar to the old Rickey method.

Just because the Orioles are painted as a team that made a lot of money off ticket sales and from broadcasting arrangements and manages it carefully doesn't mean they don't want to win. Where does it say in the rules that the players making the most money will be the most successful?

Back to Rickey. Remember when he was referred to as "El Cheapo" . . . but he understood the game and nature of ballplayers better than anyone before or since. We get the impression the Orioles are inquiring into the free-agent market, even considering pitcher Danny Jackson, who couldn't win with the Reds, as good as they were, to defuse the criticism that has followed the publishing of how much the various clubs spent on salaries for the hired hands.

If this is true then they have suddenly been overcome with a serious case of false vanity. The Boston Red Sox have always been among the top spenders, dating back to a wonderful philanthropist and human being named Tom Yawkey, an owner who was a delight to know but had a habit of overpaying and thereby spoiling the employees. But the Red Sox, despite being among the leading earners in both leagues, haven't won a World Series since World War I.

They were referred to as the Gold Sox, which had something to do with the size of the checks they took home on the first and 15th of every month. Just because the Orioles have made a ton of profit doesn't necessitate turning it over to the players. Pay for production, not promise. That should be their only consideration.

Justifying a low pay scale by going out to acquire some overpaid underachiever is contradictory to their policy and good business practices. But the Orioles are being coerced by criticism from sources believing that the way to score runs and prevent the opposition from doing the same is with a checkbook. It won't work; never has.

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