Will Orioles let Davis story have a happy ending?

MIKE LITTWIN

August 21, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

When Glenn Davis stood in against Nolan Ryan Monday night, the moment was genuinely moving, for Davis is a genuinely decent man. The story line should have been pretty clear. Here was an athlete fighting back from injury to salvage his career. It's a story that is, if not unique to sports, certainly endemic to games and part of the reason why we watch them.

Along the way back, Davis countered months of frustration and fear with equal parts of work and belief. And you saw what came of it last night. Who can believe it?

But there's another component to this story. It's the usual one, and we can go back a few more days, to last Friday, when the Orioles announced ticket prices at the new stadium to see the tie-in. The tickets are higher. This does not count as a summer surprise. This was like betting that winter follows fall. The Orioles get a free stadium, and they jack the prices. OK, everyone does it. But I'm guessing that if you price them out, you'll find a full house at Camden Yards (come on, what other name fits?) would net as much as 50 percent more than the same size crowd at soon-to-be-officially-antiquated, if memory-filled, Memorial Stadium.

That's OK, too, I guess, if they don't just take the money and stick it into their very deep pockets.

The first sign of their intent may come in their dealing with Glenn Davis, who plays first base, DH and, in this case, litmus test.

What I'm trying to say is that, although we must be happy for Davis and hope along with him that the shoulder continues to improve, a happy ending for Davis does not guarantee a similar conclusion for Orioles fans. Not if the Orioles were then to let Davis go.

Davis is, of course, working on a one-year contract. My guess is that the Orioles will offer him another one-year contract, citing his problems with injury over the past two years as a reason for not offering him more. If Davis passes the doctors' exams, if he regains his home-run swing, if these last weeks of the season are a proving ground and Davis proves out, somebody will offer him much more and that will be that.

But should it be?

Will it be?

The answer, ultimately, is known only to owner Eli Jacobs, who may or may not be selling the Orioles. He doesn't tell us much, so we're left to guess. We got a hint when prospective buyer Boogie Weinglass began investigating the possibility of owning a pro football team, should one come to town.

Whatever Jacobs does, it is unlikely he would conclude a sale of the team before the free-agent market reopens. So the decisions will probably be his decisions.

And, although I'm sure he'd reject this analysis, the Orioles owe it to everyone to make some economic sacrifice to improve the team. The Orioles are not simply a cash cow. They are, in important ways, a community project (the most important way to the Orioles, of course, is reflected in attendance figures).

The Orioles' already-significant profits are certain to continue to grow, perhaps geometrically. Demand for season tickets for the Camden Yards stadium is said to be booming. New stadiums, and maybe especially one as attractive as Camden Yards promises to be, are automatic ticket sellers, and no one would be surprised to see three million fans there next year.

But a new stadium, in combination with a contender, is the baseball equivalent of a new Arnold Schwarzenneger movie. All you've got to do is open the doors. The danger for the Orioles is that the cash cow becomes the golden goose from the well-known fable. Eventually, the Orioles must get better, or they will pay for it. Why not start now?

Which brings us back to Davis. If Davis was sufficiently important to the Orioles to send off three prospects to acquire him last winter, why is he, if healthy, any less important now? Isn't there room for both him and Randy Milligan, and didn't the Orioles foresee this conflict at first base when they traded for Davis?

There are hints from the Orioles' front office that they are now willing to spend money in the free-agent market. There is talk of acquiring a quality outfielder and a pitcher to anchor the young starting staff, which, whatever its promise, is probably a little too young at an average age of 23.6 years.

Maybe that will actually happen. Maybe the Orioles have come to realize that, to win games on the field, you have to play the rest of the game the way it's presently constituted. And that includes paying the high-priced salaries.

Davis will be the first test. You can only ask yourself that if Davis is cleared by the doctors and if he wants to stay, why would the Orioles offer just a one-year deal? If the Orioles want him, they want him. If they don't, they don't. Can they have it both ways?

And if they don't want him, they have to tell us why. The only acceptable answer is that they believe they can do better -- and then to go ahead and prove it.

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