Orioles' fiscal fun is only beginning

Ken Rosenthal

February 13, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

The settlement with Glenn Davis marks the Orioles' official entry into baseball's big-money era. Reluctant as they might be, there is no turning back, no way to spin another inflation-proof cocoon.

Next they will confront the issue of signing Davis, the game's latest $3 million man, to a multi-year contract. After that it's extension time for Cal Ripken, whose current deal expires after the 1992 season.

Then the fun truly begins: Gregg Olson becomes eligible for free agency in 1994, Ben McDonald the year after. Given the current trend, the top annual salary by then should be oh, about $30 million.

It's crazy, and everyone knows it, yet nothing changes. Never mind the recession. Or the eight to 10 clubs who lost money last year. And the uncertain future surrounding national TV contracts.

The game is reaching its breaking point, and few notice besides Pittsburgh owner Carl Barger, who issues daily warnings of apocalypse while awaiting the disintegration of his NL East champion Pirates.

"Baseball is making more money than ever before," Gene Orza of the players' union shouted from his New York office yesterday. "That's why players are getting paid more money than ever before."

Orza has a point; the owners' cries of financial distress, as detailed by commissioner Fay Vincent, might simply be the product of creative bookkeeping, a practice one would expect from the collusion kids.

That said, something must give, and the cracks are slowly beginning to show.

Pittsburgh is grappling with a situation the Orioles might face in a short time: The defections of homegrown stars whose contract demands are consistent with the marketplace, but too sizable to absorb.

Teams in large markets -- New York, Los Angeles, even Boston -- can pay massive salaries because their local TV, radio and cable contracts provide a healthy supplement to their network TV money.

VTC Hence, the increasing relevance of concepts introduced in last year's labor dispute. Most owners still believe revenue sharing is inevitable. As Vincent said, "No one thinks what's going on now makes any sense."

Groan if you must, but these questions invariably affect the everyday fan, and not only through higher ticket prices. Just yesterday, the Phillies abandoned the idea of showing their home opener on pay-per-view for a cool $9.95.

No doubt, such nonsense is the wave of the future.

But here's the most disturbing prospect of all: What happens if the next set of network contracts result in lower revenues? Both CBS and ESPN claimed major losses last season. The current agreements expire in 1994.

The players' union, of course, dismisses such talk, just as it dismisses all forecasts of doom. You never know whom to believe in these things. Truth is the first casualty of labor wars, too.

It's possible baseball could negotiate an equally attractive national television package the next time by distributing more games to more networks. But what if the money just isn't there? Will salaries crash?

The answer, of course, is no, which is another reason a remedy soon might be necessary. The Economic Study Commission created by the last basic agreement is trying to devise solutions.

The budget deficit will disappear first.

The strange thing is, some players already are feeling the pinch, even as 200 others prepare to receive salaries of more than $1 million. Nearly 30 free agents remain unsigned with spring training less than two weeks away.

That's not unusual, especially this year, when there were so many free agents, each team could have signed four or five (and really, who can blame clubs for shunning four leftovers from the 1988 Orioles: Dave Schmidt, Tom Niedenfuer, Fred Lynn and Larry Sheets?)

Seriously, Candy Maldonado's agent, Chuck Berry, says it's "rather mystifying" that his client -- a 95-RBI man in 1990 -- is struggling to find work. To a lesser extent, the same is true for players like Jeffrey Leonard and even Sheets.

"These are the guys who lose their jobs now with salaries the way they are," Orioles manager Frank Robinson said. "They're making real good money, and ballclubs look at them and say, 'We'll get a young guy who makes less and can do the same job.' "

Again, something must give, and something probably will after the 1992 season, when each side will have the option of reopening collective-bargaining talks.

Abner Doubleday had the good sense to invent this game.

It would be nice if someone had the good sense to save it.

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