Roland Hemond bounded out of the Orioles' suite at the winter meetings, thinking he had a deal. Pete Harnisch for Phil Plantier. Young pitcher for promising slugger. Hemond was so excited, he nearly burst unannounced into the Boston Red Sox's cluster of rooms.
Instead, he was intercepted by Lou Gorman, his fellow general manager and longtime acquaintance from Rhode Island. Gorman said he needed to obtain final approval from the Red Sox executives gathered inside. Soon after, he gave Hemond the news.
Both clubs made additional proposals and counter-proposals in the days that followed last December in Chicago, but for the Orioles the impetus was gone. "They didn't throw us a curveball," one club official remembers. "It was a Charlie Hough knuckleball."
Such disappointments are not uncommon, especially in the swirling tumult of the winter meetings, where one phone call can change the face of an entire season. But knowing Harnisch-for-Plantier was so close, the question begs asking: What if the trade had been made?
Oh, a few small things:
One, the Orioles never would have acquired Glenn Davis. Two, the Red Sox might already have clinched the AL East.
At the time, of course, the proposed deal seemed relatively minor. Harnisch, 25, was an erratic righthander who finished 11-11 in his first full season. Plantier, 22, was an unproven hitter with only 15 at-bats in the major leagues.
But Harnisch became an All-Star in Houston, and Plantier just started contributing in Boston. Oh, it's doubtful Harnisch would have been as successful pitching in Fenway Park as he is in the Astrodome. But in hindsight, the Red Sox might have preferred to find out.
Ask Gorman about his talks with Hemond in Chicago today, and he reacts as if he's at a Senate confirmation hearing, his memory gone blank. He confirms interest in Harnisch all right, but adds, "I don't recall Plantier being the primary guy. I recall it being someone else."
According to the Orioles, that someone was first baseman Carlos Quintana, who is now batting .306 with 11 homers and 67 RBIs. A nice player, but the Orioles already had a potential copy in David Segui. They wanted Plantier, and the whole thing fell apart when the Red Sox began asking for both Harnisch and Bob Milacki.
Gorman already was in the process of signing free-agent lefthander Matt Young to a three-year, $6.35 million contract. He still needed a righthander to replace Mike Boddicker, and eventually signed another free agent, Danny Darwin, to a four-year $12.2 million deal.
At the very least, he could have saved the latter sum by first acquiring Harnisch. Darwin has made only 12 starts due to illness and injury, and with Young is a combined 3-13. Harnisch is 11-9 pitching for last-place Houston. He also ranks third in the NL with a 2.54 ERA.
True, the Sox would have been leery opening with Harnisch as their No. 3 starter behind Roger Clemens and Young. But as it turned out, they acquired Mike Gardiner from Seattle anyway, and he later arrived from Triple A to provide nine wins. Joe Hesketh and Greg Harris each have 11, Kevin Morton six.
It's fair to wonder if Harnisch would have put Boston over the top. It's also fair to wonder if the Orioles would have been better with Plantier. No way they would have parted with two more young pitchers for Davis if they already had lost Harnisch.
Houston demanded the two pitchers (Harnisch and Curt Schilling) plus outfielder Steve Finley. The Orioles happily agreed, but now Davis has played only 39 games. Plantier spent most of the year at Triple A, but has only one fewer homer (8-7). To add insult to injury, he's nearly eight years younger, and not a free agent.
If Gorman had just taken Harnisch, the Orioles likely would have opened with an outfield of Plantier, Finley and Mike Devereaux. Segui and Randy Milligan still would have been at first, and a club official said the team might then have pursued Candy Maldonado to serve as an outfielder and DH.
Maldonado, coming off a 95-RBI season, attracted virtually no interest as a free agent. He finally joined Milwaukee and later got traded to Toronto. The Orioles might have signed him if they failed to land Davis. Instead, they added Dwight Evans, and never had the need.
Which brings us full circle to Plantier, who is developing into the type of lefthanded slugger that could have thrived in the Orioles' new downtown ballpark. He joined the Red Sox for good on Aug. 9, and in 112 at-bats is hitting .357 with seven homers and 27 RBIs.
Yes, he's aware he nearly became an Oriole. "I remember hearing the rumor," he says. "I didn't know quite what to make of it. I wasn't sure if it was true or not. At the time I was in Triple A, and I wasn't going to be up in the near future. It was nice to know somebody out there wanted you."
The Orioles not only wanted him, they thought they had him. No wonder Hemond never says if a deal is "close," no wonder he never looks back. As he puts it, "Every deal made or not made, there's a domino effect one way or the other."
In this case the dominos just didn't fall.