Bottom's up: Salaries rise, even for Orioles

February 24, 1991|By Mark Hyman

The Baltimore Orioles appear to be holding fast to their grand plan to mold an American League pennant contender with players who play hard and play relatively cheaply.

But the price has gone up.

The Orioles payroll, which was a major-league-low $7.9 million last year, will increase to about $14.6 million in 1991, according to information supplied by management and player sources.

Orioles president Larry Lucchino declined to comment on his team's payroll, saying the information was confidential. On top of that, he said the amount couldn't be accurately quoted "until the [25-man] roster has been determined."

The rise is due mainly to the Orioles' off-season trade for Glenn Davis, who quickly became the highest-paid player in franchise history at $3.275 million. But the Orioles also are feeling the pinch of an industrywide salary spiral that never seems to reach a peak.

The Boston Red Sox, with $21.8 million in player salaries, barely edged out the New York Mets and Oakland Athletics for the richest payroll of 1990. This year, the Red Sox probably will pay their players about $34 million, right behind the Athletics, who'll lead baseball with a roughly $35 million payroll.

Many owners fault the combined effects of salary arbitration and free agency for their troubles, saying that a single error by an arbitrator can have reverberations that can cost them millions of dollars and last for years.

From the owners' perspective, there's another problemthemselves. Commissioner Fay Vincent divides the 26 owners into two groups -- the businessmen who operate their teams as they would banks or grocery stores, never paying out more than they take in, and the others whom the commissioner refers to as "hobbyists."

It's the hobbyists that worry Vincent.

"They're not affected by economic conditions," Vincent said. "They say, 'I want to win, and it doesn't matter if I lose a substantial amount of money.' While that may be a good individual decision, it has consequences for [baseball]."

The Orioles' ownership of Eli S. Jacobs, Larry Lucchino and Sargent Shriver has emphasized youth -- and steered a frugal course -- since buying the team from Agnes Williams in 1988. But that's getting tougher as the roster grows older.

And it has. The players on the Orioles 40-man roster average 2.37 years of major-league service, as compared with 1.69 a year ago. That may seem like an insignificant fraction, but a player with two years of major-league service pretty much is forced to accept whatever salary is offered, and a three-year veteran is eligible for salary arbitration.

Said Lucchino, "As people get older, their rights change."

So do their salaries.

Take the case of Bill Ripken. He had a good year in 1990, leading the team in average (.291) and tying for the lead in doubles (28). His salary jumped from $215,000 to $700,000, a raise of 326 percent. As a three-year major-leaguer, he became eligible for arbitration. The rules changed.

Then there's Gregg Olson. He hasn't signed yet, but when he does, he's likely to become the highest-paid player ever with less than three years in the majors. The number to beat is $450,000, which the Los Angeles Dodgers paid Tim Belcher last year. Two-year players Ron Gant and Mark Grace each signed for more than $1 million this year.

Olson has had two years in the big leagues, and has been among baseball's premier relief pitchers in both. Last year, the Orioles paid him $305,000, and, though they don't have to pay more in 1991, they're likely at least to double it. There's also the possibility of a multiyear contract, which would remove the threat of arbitration next year.

Why be nice to a player without immediate leverage?

"When talent rises to level of Gregg's, it causes the club to feel it has to do something," said Baltimore lawyer Ron Shapiro, who has several Orioles among his clients, but not Olson. "He's risen to a level that makes it clear he stands by himself."

In coming years, the Orioles will have more players coming t arbitration. Bob Milacki, Craig Worthington and Randy Milligan will graduate with Olson next year, assuming all complete the season in the major leagues. In that case, this year's Orioles payroll increase might be a prelude to something bigger.

Despite the increase, the Orioles still will be at or near the bottom of the salary scale this year. With them at the low end will be the Chicago White Sox, who, with the Orioles, had the only major-league payrolls below $10 million last year, and the Houston Astros, who spent the off-season divesting of $1 million contracts. The Astros parted with four, including Davis'.

As of yesterday, 23 of 36 players on the Orioles spring-training roster had agreed to 1991 contracts, including three who'll earn $1 million or more this season -- Davis, Cal Ripken ($2.2 million) and Joe Orsulak ($1.1 million).

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