PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The Orioles started playing games, and Tom McCraw didn't need to play along. He got a better offer, for better money, from a better team. He was happy to rejoin the New York Mets, and the Orioles were happy to see him go.
Oh, they'll never admit as much, sniffing, "We rehired the guy," as if the issue ends there. The truth is, the Orioles didn't want McCraw to remain their hitting coach. That's why they opened contract talks by insulting him with an offer of a $1,000 raise.
It's fair to say everything worked out. McCraw, 51, got a $26,000 increase from the Mets to push his salary into six figures, while the Orioles replaced him with the highly regarded Greg Biagini, who managed nine seasons in their minor-league system.
Yet, six months after the fact, McCraw's account of his departure is too disturbing to ignore. He returns to Baltimore tomorrow for the first exhibition game at Oriole Park at Camden ** Yards. He'll be quite comfortable in the visitors' dugout, thank you.
Why didn't the Orioles just fire him? McCraw suspects they were afraid to dismiss a black hitting coach on top of a black manager (Frank Robinson) and a black pitching coach (Al Jackson). The Orioles will never admit that either. But without elaborating, McCraw says, "It crossed my mind."
Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks is the only remaining black on the staff; outfield coach Curt Motton was reassigned as a spe
cial-assignment scout. In a racial sense, the turnover might seem dramatic, but in a baseball sense, it's not. New managers pick new coaches. Happens all the time.
Of course, it's better to be overly sensitive than insensitive. But the Orioles, an industry leader in minority hiring, had nothing to fear. As McCraw so aptly puts it, "Frank's been fired three times. I haven't seen one [protest] march yet."
It's simply understood that coaches, managers and even general managers come and go. McCraw and Jackson knew they were in trouble the minute John Oates replaced Robinson last May. But all summer, club sources cited the racial question as a reason the Orioles might not dismiss both.
Sure enough, they didn't. Oates said he wanted to keep McCraw, who played an important role in developing several young Orioles hitters, most notably Mike Devereaux, Randy Milligan and Sam Horn. But Oates didn't make the salary offer that convinced McCraw he was no longer welcome.
No, that task belonged to general manager Roland Hemond. McCraw says the Orioles told him the $1,000 offer was only a starting point, but he took the hint. "I told them, 'Don't insult me. You're offering me a $1,000 raise,' " McCraw recalls. "After taxes, how much do you get, $300?"
Hemond says, "I wasn't completely convinced that Tom was all that excited about staying. We were in the early stages of negotiation. Then the Mets asked permission to speak with him. We wanted to retain him. Otherwise, we wouldn't have asked him back."
In Hemond's defense, it's possible McCraw already knew he could return to the Mets. Not only was he their minor-league hitting instructor from 1986-88, he had strong ties to new manager Jeff Torborg. Both he and Torborg worked under Robinson in Cleveland in 1975.
What's more, the Orioles couldn't have matched the Mets' offer. McCraw is believed to have received a multi-year deal with an approximate annual salary of $109,000. That's the major-league minimum for players, and certain managers get it for their coaches, who also derive income from the major-league licensing agreement.
On the surface, then, it appears McCraw was simply out of the Orioles' price range. Still McCraw believes they were eager to see him leave. "Their reaction was, 'It's great for my career,' " he says. And thus closed the final chapter of a relationship gone sour.
McCraw loved Baltimore -- "They've got some of the best fans I've ever seen. The whole community makes you feel like you're a part of a family" -- but he's still upset over the circumstances that led to Robinson's firing just 19 months after nearly leading the Orioles to the AL East title.
"I wish we could have gotten the chance to finish it," he says. "It's very hard for me to digest, the fact that we were put through a spring like we were last year [with no home exhibitions] and then expected to go ahead and turn average players into pennant contenders.
"That was too much. But the people who put us through that never gave that any thought. I think that was unfair to the staff. Under normal conditions, if you don't do the job, you should be fired. But I've been in this game 32 years. That was the first time I experienced anything like that."
Of course, McCraw wasn't fired. The Orioles rehired him, remember?