After 1991, Orioles face payback time

JOHN EISENBERG

April 07, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

This city's loyal and many baseball fans should think of th Orioles' upcoming season as the sweet before the stomachache, a today to be savored before a tomorrow that could get unpleasant. Call it the Last Innocent Season.

The lines of the matter are all straight for right now. The 1991 Orioles are more potent than 1990, capable of winning the AL East. The players are young, appealing. The front office upgraded the product over the winter. Everyone is happy. It should be an entertaining season.

But what next? What about next year? The years after? The lines don't look so straight. There looms a spate of possible complications, a foreseeable run of gloomy headlines about contract negotiations, indignant agents, general surliness. Straight lines gone crooked. The end of the innocence.

Before a game is played at the new stadium, the Orioles must dive into the rough pool that is baseball's money-mad reality, a plunge they are loathe to make. Staying out of the water means giving up competitively, gutting the innards of the club. Something must give.

This is the essential fact: Financially, the club is about to pitch to the middle of its order. Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis will require new contracts before the 1992 season. Gregg Olson will be eligible for salary arbitration. Ben McDonald will be eligible in 1993.

Those four are the linchpins of the franchise. It will take a fortune to wrap them up, and the Orioles have shown a reluctance to part with even a fraction of the high sums now commonly paid even to marginal players. Whether this makes the club smart or cheap is an issue, but the immediate reality is that the time for writing big checks is approaching.

The good news is that you don't need to worry about any of this yet, not during this Last Innocent Season, not with Davis banging home runs and the club complete enough to contend with Toronto and Boston. After the last pitch of the season, though, the very tone of baseball in Baltimore could begin to change.

There has been almost a sweetness about the Orioles since the first pitch of the 1989 season. They were mostly young, hungry, low-salaried players, not yet part of the insane, inflated show baseball has become. But the game is taking its capitalistic course, repaying players for jobs well done, and the Orioles' time is coming. It had to happen, but so much for the sweetness.

There are three possible endings. Let's start with the best. The club signs Davis and Ripken, settles happily with Olson and McDonald. A happy ending. The dollars it will require can lead to ego-driven jealousy and inconstancy, but not automatically, and considering the unselfish nature of the four players, it is possible the Orioles could escape with nary a sour headline.

But let's be realistic. When a couple of prime-time players' salaries go up, the other players want more, too. And the Orioles will have a slew of others eligible for arbitration after 1991 -- Randy Milligan, Mike Devereaux, Craig Worthington, Bill Ripken.

Just a hunch, but the front office may not react well to such a full-clubhouse press. They are hardball negotiators, and they count nickels. They had two major free agents last year, Phil Bradley and Mickey Tettleton, and both were traded for players drawing smaller wages.

OK, they did sign Glenn Davis to a big contract for 1991, but they had no choice after trading for him. All they did was rent peace for a year. They have not yet proved they are capable of paying the necessary, long-term dollars, and it could take $40 million to wrap up Davis and Cal Ripken. Yikes.

Another possible ending is that the club, say, keeps Ripken but not Davis. Of the two, Davis certainly would seem the more likely departee. He says he loves it here, but he doesn't have the history here that Ripken does. It is just about impossible to envision Ripken in another uniform. Again, we shall see.

Losing Davis would be as much a disaster as trading for him was a brilliant stroke. He is a ball-clobbering power hitter in his prime, a player around whom a lineup can be written for years. The club won't lack for offense as long as he is here, and considering the peanut hitting of the past two seasons, that's an enormous hole filled. The club owes the city a signed Davis.

The third possible ending is, of course, the natural disaster, losing those to be lost, making everyone unhappy. Let's not talk about it.

Anyway, the point is that you don't have to worry about any of this until after the season. For a team allegedly building with youth, the Orioles' approach to 1991 is "win now." Larry Lucchino said so much on the day the Davis trade was made. Our concern, he said, was putting a better team on the field this year. He said he would worry about the future later.

Later will be now soon enough, but give the front office credit. The club couldn't hit last year, and by golly, the front-office went out and got some hitters. The club is not without weakness, but there is considerable potential. It should be a season worth watching. A fun season. Just don't think about what happens next.

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