WEST PALM BEACH,FLA. — WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The Baltimore Orioles announced yesterday that they signed 39-year-old left-hander Mike Flanagan a one-year contract, but that did not come as good news to the veteran reliever he pushed off the roster.
Kevin Hickey also was called to general manager Roland Hemond's hotel room, but it was to sign a waiver form. The Orioles waived him for the purpose of giving him his unconditional release on the last day before the club would have had to guarantee his entire 1991 salary.
Hickey wasn't the only one. Pitchers John Mitchell and Dan Boone also were released and non-roster outfielder Larry Sheets was told that there was no room for him on the major-league club. But none of those moves was particularly surprising. Hickey was stunned, and he did nothing to hide his disappointment.
"Just when things seemed to be going well, this happens," he said. "I thought I was throwing the ball as well as anyone. I only gave up two runs all spring.
"I'm so upset, they might as well take a K-48 and drive it through my heart. You might as well lie down and let the bus roll over you."
Major-league teams had until 2 p.m. yesterday to release players without being required to pay them for the entire season. Players waived by the deadline receive 45 days' severance pay -- about $60,000 in Hickey's case.
"The thing that bothers me is that they waited until the last day," he said. "I played 14 years, and the way I approach the game is, if it's a competitive camp and someone beats you out, fine. But it's all the money that comes into it. I really thought I had a spot on the team."
Though the Orioles saved nearly $190,000 by making the move yesterday, manager Frank Robinson said that money had nothing to do with it. There was only room for one left-hander in the bullpen, he explained, and Flanagan had won that job.
"It was nothing he didn't do," Robinson said. "He threw the ball well and was healthy. It was just a numbers thing. With Flanagan making the club and us planning to go with nine pitchers at the beginning, there just wasn't a spot for him.
"It was a difficult thing, because he has contributed a lot to this ballclub. He has been good for the organization and good for the ballclub."
Hickey, 35, had an 0-1 record and a respectable 2.25 ERA. He was under the impression that he was competing for a job with newcomer Paul Kilgus (1-1, 2.31), but it now seems likely that Kilgus will start the season with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings. Hickey was given the open-ended option of staying with the organization and going back to the minor leagues, but he will first see if he can catch on with another club.
The Flanagan signing was just a formality. He has been one of the most effective pitchers in camp, so the club simply made it official. The contract calls for a $250,000 base salary and an incentive program based on the number of starts and relief appearances he makes this year.
"It's nice to have it finalized," Flanagan said. "I feel like things went well this spring and the numbers worked out for me."
The announcement that Flanagan would be on the club, coupled with the release of Hickey and the near certainty that Robinson will open with a nine-man pitching staff, answered a number of questions about the eventual makeup of the Orioles pitching staff.
Jeff Ballard already has been announced as the Opening Day starter, Jose Mesa has been penciled into next Wednesday's game and Dave Johnson seems certain to pitch the road opener against the Texas Rangers. But the bullpen has been much harder to figure, especially with at least one candidate for the rotation likely to end up there.
Robinson all but announced that right-hander J. J. Bautista would join Flanagan in middle relief, which means that Kilgus and Roy Smith will start the season at Class AAA. Apparently, Mitchell no longer fit into the club's plans at either the major- or minor-league level.
The dismissal of Sheets makes it a near certainty that catcher Ernie Whitt will make the club as a third catcher and a left-handed pinch hitter, though that will not be official until Whitt signs a contract for 1991.
Sheets batted .154 in limited action and was notified late Monday that his services would not be required. Whitt has been much more effective in a part-time role, batting .364 with three home runs and seven RBI, which made Sheets expendable.
"The other guy had a better spring than [Sheets] did," Robinson said. "We were only going to carry one of them, so there was no sense keeping Sheets around and giving him at-bats we needed for someone else."
Sheets had passed up a chance to play in Japan to try and remain in the major leagues. He is three years removed from a season in which he hit .316 with 31 home runs and 94 RBI, but could find it very hard to catch on with another major-league club this late in spring training.
The roster moves left the Orioles with 31 players still in camp, including three non-roster invitees. Hemond said the club may ,, not make any further cuts until this weekend, when the Orioles play host to the Boston Red Sox for the final preseason games at RFK Stadium.
Kevin Hickey LHP
John Mitchell RHP
Dan Boone LHP
Larry Sheets* OF
Mike Flanagan LHP
*--Sheets was a non-roster invitee to camp. He didn't have a contract with the Orioles.