Tigers move should open more doors for Tettleton

January 14, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

Mickey Tettleton is moving again. He thought he had found a home in Baltimore, just as he once thought he had found a home in Oakland. Soon, he'll be looking for some place to live in Detroit.

Such is life for the arbitration generation. Tettleton apparently priced himself out of the Baltimore Orioles lineup. The club traded him to the Detroit Tigers on Saturday to acquire some pitching help and avoid a potentially costly salary arbitration hearing. The move made sense largely because it sliced about $1 million off next season's payroll.

But Tettleton's days as the full-time catcher in Baltimore were numbered. Promising Chris Hoiles was on the way up, and reserve Bob Melvin just signed a new two-year contract. Playing time was going to be scarce both behind the plate and at designated hitter.

"The only thing that made any sense was to get him to a club that would play him consistently," agent Tony Attanasio said. "The Orioles were either not going to play him, or they were going to move him after June 15. Either way, there was a chance that Mickey would have ended up with 150 at-bats, and where would that leave us when he becomes a free agent again next year?"

Tettleton, by virtue of the rules governing free agents who accept salary arbitration, could not be traded without his permission before June 15. He sold that permission for $50,000 and said goodbye to the city where he established himself as one of baseball's best-hitting catchers in 1989.

It was a graceful exit. Tettleton never has been prone to emotional outbursts. He never has criticized Orioles management. He never has complained about the seeming lack zTC of interest the club showed in him as he approached free-agent eligibility last season.

"I have nothing but good memories of my three years with the Orioles," he said Saturday, hours after the trade was announced. "The Orioles gave me an opportunity to keep my career going and to accelerate it. Now, it's time to move on."

Though Tettleton describes his career in Baltimore as "a very positive three years," the past season was a very negative experience. The year after he hit 26 home runs and made the American League All-Star team, he struck out 160 times and set a major-league record for switch hitters in 1990.

Nonetheless, he figured to be a popular player in this year's free- agent auction. By one published account, Tettleton was the fourth-most attractive player in a field of 100. This was supposed to be the year that he got his piece of baseball's breathtaking salary spiral.

But it was not to be. The Orioles offered a one-year contract worth about $1.3 million and told Attanasio to call back if he came up with anything better. Darren Daulton, a six-year veteran with a .206 career batting average, signed a three-year deal worth $6.75 million with the Philadelphia Phillies, but Tettleton did not get an acceptable multiyear offer from anyone.

"I'm convinced that there was a backlash after the Daulton contract," Attanasio said. "At first, we thought it was going to help us, but I think people took a look at that and said, 'My God, look what they paid a guy with a .206 lifetime average. Catchers don't deserve that kind of money.' "

Tettleton sat on the sidelines while money rained on many of his contemporaries. Baseball's annual winter meetings were a free-agent free-for-all, but the highlight of that week for Tettleton was when the Orioles offered him salary arbitration. Twelve days later, he accepted that offer and deferred his free-agent eligibility until next November.

Now, Tettleton is back in the same situation he was in last year, albeit with another club. He'll get another chance to prove himself worthy of a megabucks, multiyear deal. But, for the time being, a $1.6 million guarantee for 1991 isn't bad.

"I'm excited about it," Tettleton said. "Any time you put something new into your life, you have to be excited. Sparky Anderson is a great manager. The Tigers are a much-improved team. They have some great hitters, and I think that's going to take some pressure off me."

The arrival of Glenn Davis in Baltimore might have done the same thing, but Tettleton hardly got a chance to ponder the possibilities. The first-base surplus figured to squeeze him out of any designated- hitter duty. The emergence of Hoiles seemed certain to cut down on his time behind the plate. The writing already was on the clubhouse wall, but the Davis deal made it a lot easier to read.

"I knew right away that it was going to cut down my playing time as a right-handed hitter," Tettleton said. "I also knew they wanted Bob [Melvin] to play against left-handers. But I still think they made a step in the right direction. I think it will take some pressure off Cal [Ripken]. I think you'll see him have another terrific year."

Davis will have to do the same if he is to persuade the Orioles to treat him differently than Tettleton. He will be eligible for free agency at the end of the 1991 season if the club does not sign him to a multiyear deal, and there has been speculation that the price could run as high as $20 million over five years.

If that figure is accurate, the man who tried to get $6 million for Tettleton said he thinks the Orioles will fold their hand in a hurry.

"If they give him $20 million," Attanasio said, "I'll enlist in the Japanese air force and volunteer to be a kamikaze pilot."

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