For all the uncertainty surrounding Glenn Davis' immediate future, it's ironic that his chances of remaining an Oriole past this season are better than ever before.
Even if the first baseman returns by midsummer -- the most believable timetable -- it's doubtful he'll produce the monster season that would maximize his value as a free agent.
Thus, his best option probably will be to re-sign with the Orioles for one year, retain his free-agent rights and test the market in 1992. By doing that, he could reward the club for its patience while re-emerging as one of the game's most feared sluggers.
In fact, the only way the Orioles can lose Davis now might be if he recovers quickly and eliminates concerns about his health with a strong second half. That's hardly a worst-case scenario, not when it could result in a division title.
All right, that's stretching it.
Still, strange as it sounds, Davis' pain in the neck could give the Orioles a shot in the arm -- if not this season, then the next. Davis, naturally, isn't thinking about this right now. But consider the facts:
Early reports indicate that Davis might be limited by his injury to a designated hitter's role this season and possibly beyond. That would eliminate interest from nearly one-half the free-agent market -- the National League.
Meanwhile, Davis will earn $3.275 million this season even if he doesn't play another game. The Orioles are taking great care to get him the proper medical care, treat him as family. Davis, 30, is that rare player who might actually reciprocate their goodwill.
Major leaguers aren't known for their sense of obligation, but Davis professes to be different. Free agency, of course, would test his allegiance, yet the simple fact is, it probably would be in his best interests to stay at least another year.
Oh, Davis could make like Robert Redford in "The Natural" or Kirk Gibson in the '88 World Series. But this isn't the movies, and it isn't a one-shot deal. Given the tricky nature of his injury, he must limit his goals.
Which isn't to say he can't come back and hit 30 homers. Davis suffered his injury March 12, but as club physician Charles Silberstein noted yesterday, "I can only think of the last pitch he swung at [a week ago in Chicago]. He hit a home run."
The injury affects Davis' throwing more than his hitting, but even if he returns only as a DH, a free-spending club like the Yankees probably would have a strong interest in signing him long-term.
Didn't the White Sox take a greater risk with Bo Jackson?
Yes, but such thinking not only assumes Davis will make a speedy recovery, it ignores his strong adherence to traditional values, not the least of which is loyalty.
Davis last night described the free-agent question as "neither here nor there . . . too far away . . . irrelevant." But it's obvious the Orioles already are thinking ahead by trying to make him as comfortable as possible.
It's little things like instructing assistant trainer Jamie Reed to accompany Davis to his doctor's appointments in New York on Monday. And it's big things like enabling Davis to seek as much medical input as he desires.
The appearance is that Davis and the Orioles simply pursued a more favorable opinion after Dr. James N. Campbell of Johns Hopkins Hospital recommended surgery. But rather than withdraw support of Davis' fact-finding mission this instant, club officials are encouraging it to continue.
The final decision, of course, rests with Davis, who surely will be protected by his agent, Robert Fraley. The Orioles are merely trying to set the right tone with a player who became disenchanted when his former club in Houston grew insensitive to his needs.
It's a noble strategy, as long as majority owner Eli Jacobs decides Davis is again worth the money (the maximum a team can cut a player's salary is 20 percent). If not, the Orioles would be left with virtually no return for the three young players they traded to Houston.
In spring training Davis said: "There are some factors you can not replace, that money can't buy. They're important to me, important to my total being and welfare. It's good for a ballplayer to feel he's part of an organization, comfortable in his surroundings. Today that's tough to find."
Last night he said: "They want the right thing to happen just as much as I do. We're both thinking along the same lines. From Day One, they've wanted to find out what the problem is, how to diagnose it, how to treat it. If it takes going to the other side of the world, that's what we're going to do."
When the time comes, maybe none of it will matter.
But this is a special case, and a special player.
The Orioles might luck out yet.