Contract 'hammer' only dents salary wall temporarily

Ken Rosenthal

March 14, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Ever mindful of the latest trends in music and fashion, both major-league owners and players raced to adopt "Hammer Time" as their rallying cry in contract talks.

The owners shout it with glee until players become eligible for salary arbitration. The players shout it with vengeance the moment they qualify, usually after three years.

Last year the Orioles disdained such tasteless frivolity in favor of peaceful settlements with their 0- to 3-year players, the ones over whom they could exercise control.

This year they clamped down with the rest of baseball, all but chanting "You Can't Touch This" as they set the salaries of first baseman Randy Milligan and outfielder Mike Devereaux without signed agreements.

It was the first time the Orioles renewed contracts on their own terms. Both players received raises -- Milligan from $155,000 to $330,000, Devereaux from $145,000 to $210,000. But their 1991 salaries will be low relative to comparable players with the same experience.

All this might seem insignificant to the average fan, but it's impossible to dismiss the impact of contract disputes on today's game, especially after hearing about Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and walkouts all spring.

As Jeff Moorad, the agent for Orioles reliever Gregg Olson, said, "I believe teams all over baseball are caught between rewarding young players at competitive cutting-edge levels, and the knowledge that in a few short years those same players will be skyrocketing toward higher packages through arbitration and free agency."

Moorad negotiated a $505,000 package for Olson plus incentives, the highest one-year deal for a player with two years experience. Milligan and Devereaux are in the same service class, but each was renewed at a salary below the club's final offer -- with no incentives.

That's partly their own fault, or at least the fault of their agent, Ray Anderson, who could have agreed to contracts before Monday's deadline instead of costing them thousands. Anderson gambled the Orioles would be as generous as the previous year. He lost.

The club's hard-line approach might seem unfair, especially in the case of Milligan, who hit 20 homers and finished second in the AL in on-base percentage despite playing only three games after separating his left shoulder Aug. 7.

But nine Orioles, including Milligan and Devereaux, will be eligible for arbitration next year. Their salaries will then reflect market value for the first time. After three more years, they'll become eligible for free agency, where pay increases are even more dramatic.

Thus, the club used its leverage while it could. Anderson labeled the tactic "extreme hardball," but he said the talks were not rancorous. On the other hand, he added, "Players are prone to look back and remember when you treated them harshly because you had the hammer and they didn't."

The Orioles also had the hammer last year, but didn't use it following the near-miracle of 1989. Their roster included three of the highest-paid second-year players -- Olson ($270,000), Bob Milacki ($235,000) and Craig Worthington ($207,500).

Only Olson improved on his performance of the previous season, and the club's victory total dropped from 87 to 76. Rather than face renewals, Milacki and Worthington agreed to the same salaries this season.

"We negotiated long and hard with all our players, including the ones we renewed," club president Larry Lucchino said. "We went right down to the wire. We paid fair contracts, absolutely fair contracts. We didn't renew at some rock-bottom figure."

Neither Milligan nor Devereaux vowed revenge, but neither could say he was satisfied. "I knew I didn't have any leverage going into the whole process," Milligan said. "I'm a little bit hurt, but I knew when it came right down to it, what could I do?"

Milligan, 29, wanted a package that would have put him in the range of third-year players such as Matt Williams (two years, $2.6 million), Ken Griffey Jr. (two years, $2.535 million), Gregg Jefferies (one year, $425,000) and Gary Sheffield ($400,000).

Devereaux, 27, would have accepted the contract former teammate Steve Finley received from Houston -- $260,000 plus $55,000 in incentives. Devereaux batted .244 to Finley's .256 but he had nine more homers and 12 more RBIs in nearly 100 fewer at-bats.

The Orioles could ignore the comparisons this year, fitting Milligan and Devereaux into their own salary structure. Next year they'll have no choice. Next year the players seize "Hammer Time," and they'll only be trying to even the score.

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