League strikeout returns Tettleton to home base


December 21, 1990|By MIKE LITTWIN

You don't need to repair the Hubble telescope to discover the outer limits of the free-agency madness. It's right here in front of us. The line ends where Mickey Tettleton begins.

Mickey has, uh, struck out again.

It isn't just the Orioles who didn't want Tettleton. No one wanted him. He's the automatic headliner on the new show: "America's Least Wanted."

Is this embarrassing or what? In this era of profligate spending, when you get $3 million a year if you can tie your shoelaces without help, at a time when Larry "$4.5 million for two years even though he's 37 and you never heard of him" Andersen is about to break the bank, every team in baseball has effectively said to Tettleton, "We'd rather eat hot lead than even talk to you."

If you're Mickey Tettleton, how can you ever show your face again? If you're Mickey Tettleton, you have to ask to join the witness protection program -- get a new name, a new identity and, most important, a new batting stance.

What's wrong with the Mick? He's a one-man recession. Every bozo on the bus is making $3 million, and the former cereal killer can't get a sniff. (A recent quote from Toucan Sam: "Mickey who?")

OK, I know he struck out 160 times and he's nobody's idea of Johnny Bench, but, come on, this is the '90s. Danny Darwin gets $11.8 for four years from Boston, and that's before incentives. With incentives -- say he wins 12 games -- they throw in the Prudential building. And the Mick, a switch-hitting, one-time power-hitting catcher, gets buptkus?

He hit 15 homers. He can bring his own gear. Many of his bats don't have a mark on them. He's gotta be worth -- what? -- $7 million for three years.

Do you need any more evidence that baseball misses George Steinbrenner? George would have signed him to a five-year, $15-million contract and wouldn't have tried to blackmail him for at least two years.

There must be something here that we're missing, some piece of the puzzle. It can't just be that people think Tettleton is not worth millions of dollars. Did you see what Bud Black got? So, I went to interview the Mick's neighbors to see if I could uncover some peculiarity, some defect, some character flaw that has kept his name off the multimillion-dollar Rolodex. I didn't find much. He doesn't even kick his dog.

"He was a quiet boy," said one man.

"No trouble, kept to himself," said another.

"Great with the kids," said yet another neighbor. "Played stickball with 'em every day. Never got a hit."

Maybe the problem is that Tettleton is too nice a guy. At this point, you've got to fire your agent, right? What's the deal -- his agent's got an unlisted phone number? On his answering machine, it must say, "I'm out of town. Unless you want to sign Mickey Tettleton to a multiyear contract, leave your number after the beep."

In case you're interested, the agent's name is Tony Attanasio, and maybe the first thing you should know about him is that he used to represent Alan Wiggins. What possible excuse could Attanasio have for coming up with no decent offers -- that's no as in none, nada, zip, and pretty close to the Mick's batting average. All Attanasio could claim is that Tettleton is a victim of collusion. It's worked before. He could suggest that the owners got together and decided not to offer obscene contracts to anyone who struck out more than 159 times.

And so, Tettleton is still an Oriole after all. Just think of all those wasted hours on the sports talk shows discussing Tettleton's fate. They could have been talking instead about a name for the new stadium (for a slightly different look, how about Lou Gehrig Stadium?). They could have been talking about how Washington doesn't deserve an expansion baseball team. (A radio person asked me the other day why people in Baltimore hate Washington. I was confused. "People in Baltimore?" I asked. "I thought everyone hated Washington.")

The Orioles and Tettleton will agree on a one-year contract, possibly after arbitration. That he's still an Oriole must prove that they were right and others (me?) were wrong. Others (me?) thought for sure that somebody would offer him something. Heck, when Darren Daulton got $6.7 million for three years, I figured Tettleton had a license to steal. Maybe his license expired.

Leaving one final question: Why do the Orioles want him?

As it turns out, that's an easy one. According to the rules of baseball, if you don't offer an unsigned free agent from your team arbitration by Dec. 9, you lose any compensation (a first-round draft pick in this case) when somebody else signs him. The Orioles had to sign Tettleton to protect themselves. And they had to sign him because, let's face it, he's the best catcher they've got. And for a team that has spent approximately $28 million less than the Boston Red Sox in the free-agent market, the Orioles can afford the $1.5 million it might cost them, especially if Tettleton hits 26 homers again this season.

So, let's welcome Tettleton home. You won't have any trouble recognizing him. He'll be the guy in the funny nose and glasses.

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