First $10-million-a-year-player? Griffey may take it to bank

BASEBALL

December 29, 1991|By JIM HENNEMAN

Back when free agency was in its infancy, which must seem like a lifetime ago to most owners, it was speculated that Robin Yount would become baseball's first $10 million man.

For his career.

Now, 15 years later, the pundits are trying to zero in on the player who will earn that much in one season.

After much not-too-scientific calculation, the early favorite to be the first eight-figure man is Ken Griffey. If you want to pinpoint the year, try 1997, provided that television networks don't bankrupt themselves with billion-dollar commitments before then.

That would be the third year after Griffey becomes eligible for free agency for the first time. Already acclaimed by many as the biggest impact player in the game, the Seattle center fielder will be only 25 after the 1994 season, when he logs his sixth season in the big leagues.

To get an idea how far baseball has progressed in the 15 years since free agency reared its dollar signs after the 1976 season, consider the first marquee player to test the system.

Reggie Jackson asked the Baltimore Orioles for $1.5 million for five years in 1976 and was turned down. The $2.9 million he

enticed from the Yankees became the standard by which all subsequent contracts were judged.

Yount was 20 at the time, with three years' experience as a major-league shortstop. He had a chance of being a free agent three times in the prime of his career. To some, it was mind-boggling to suggest he might make $10 million during the next 15 years.

Now compare Yount to Griffey. With arbitration as an ally, Griffey will make at least that much in the next three years -- and then be able to test the open market three or four years before what is normally considered an athlete's prime.

Prediction: Griffey will make $10 million a year before he is 30.

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While on the subject: For those who are wondering why the Orioles aren't knocking down the Oriole Park at Camden Yards warehouse to extend Cal Ripken's contract -- read the above.

Ripken is destined to become baseball's highest-paid player, at least for a while, with his next contract. And while his representative, Ron Shapiro, isn't against negotiating now, neither is he in a hurry.

When Bobby Bonilla signed a $29 million, five-year contract with the Mets, he restructured the market. Until then, a $30 million deal for Ripken didn't seem unreasonable on either side.

But that changed in a hurry. Bonilla was the head of this year's free-agent class and is an impact player, but he might have trouble ranking in baseball's top 20. Ripken has often stated his allegiance to Baltimore and the Orioles -- but his overriding desire is to win.

Ripken signed his last contract in 1988, four months after his father had been fired as manager and during the height of collusion. He was assured the club was committed to rebuilding a contender.

That will be as big a factor as money in the next negotiation as well. But it is wrong to assume the Orioles can undercut the market with an early offer just because their signature player would prefer to stay at home.

*

Some late shopping ideas: It isn't likely that the Orioles will be active with any of the unsigned free agents, but there are a few who might be classified as after-Christmas bargains.

Left-handed pitchers Bill Krueger (Seattle) and Dennis Rasmussen and Atlee Hammaker (San Diego), might fit into some starting rotations. Right-hander Terry Leach (Minnesota) is experienced long reliever.

Catcher Mark Salas (Detroit) should be able to find a home somewhere. And outfielder Herm Winningham (Cincinnati) is a sleeper candidate for a team looking for an outfielder who could

hit leadoff.

*

Look what they found: The last thing the St. Louis Cardinals expected after they traded for first baseman Andres Galarraga (Montreal) was for Pedro Guerrero to accept arbitration.

Now the Cardinals have a 35-year-old left fielder who was moved to first base because his creaky knees wouldn't hold up on artificial turf. Guerrero would make a natural DH candidate, but apparently isn't very attractive trade bait. He accepted arbitration after being underwhelmed on the free-agent market.

But, will the name fit? The new Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and its predecessor, Memorial Stadium, are commanding unprecedented national attention. Not since Wrigley Field introduced lights in 1988 has a stadium gotten more recognition than the performers.

The final weekend of the 1991 season resulted in two of the

biggest sports stocking-stuffers in the region during the Christmas holidays. The one-hour video of the closing festivities and the book, "House Of Magic," with an eight-page final-weekend supplement to the history of Memorial Stadium, have both been hot items.

With little advertising, the video is nearing 15,000 in sales and the book, originally published in April, has exceeded that total.

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