How one O's health altered team wealth

KEN ROSENTHAL

October 10, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

OAKLAND, CALIF — OAKLAND, Calif. -- Oh, how the course of baseball history might have changed, if only Pete Stanicek had been healthy in the spring of 1988.

All Stanicek did was cost the Orioles a chance to get Dave Winfield, who is now romping about in the American League playoffs at age 41.

Of course, the Orioles had just as much chance as Toronto to sign Winfield as a free agent last winter. Alas, club owner Eli Jacobs was too busy dreaming about naming a plaza after himself.

Now that deed is done, so Jacobs can just blame the previous ownership -- not to mention Stanicek, a switch-hitting second baseman who amounted to a sneak preview of Glenn Davis.

The deal was Winfield for Stanicek and Fred Lynn, both of whom are now retired. Winfield and Lynn had veto power, but just think about the possibilities if the trade had been made.

The Orioles lost 21 straight games to open the season with two future Hall of Famers (Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray). Would they have lost 31 straight with three?

The frantic Roland Hemond already had acquired Mark Thurmond, Jeff Stone, Keith Hughes, Rick Schu and Wade Rowdon in his first spring as general manager.

Winfield would have put the club over the top.

Just think, Cal Ripken Sr. might have lasted 12 games as manager instead of six. And no one would have ever heard of Bob Rivers, the wacky DJ who wouldn't go off the air until the Orioles won.

But this gets better.

Two years later, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was banned for life after paying Howard Spira $40,000 for turning up dirt on his arch-enemy Winfield.

The ugly episode would never have occurred if Winfield was an Oriole. Steinbrenner could have continued his destruction of the Yankees, naming one of Billy Martin's relatives manager.

See what havoc Stanicek wreaked?

Orioles officials are divided over whether the deal actually would have been completed, but asking them to recall the spring of '88 is like asking President Bush to recall Iran-contra.

They might have been present.

But they can't be sure.

Larry Lucchino, then a vice-president, says the Orioles made "a major effort" to acquire Winfield, but were thwarted because the Yankees' price was too high.

"[Former owner Edward Bennett] Williams was eager to do it," Lucchino says. "He had a real reverence for brand-name players who produced."

Lynn was supposed to be one of those players when Williams signed him as a free agent in 1986, but back to the trade.

Doug Melvin, then a special assistant to Williams, says: "I don't think it was close to being done." But Hemond, who never is optimistic about such things, thought it had a chance.

Stanicek was then one of the Orioles' top prospects. He had stolen 77 bases in his first full season as a professional in 1986, and made his major-league debut the following year.

The Orioles were trying to make him a left fielder in that fateful spring of '88. But Stanicek broke a finger on March 15, and was starting to show signs of the chronic leg problems that would plague him later.

"[Yankees GM Lou] Piniella was saying, 'You're telling me, this guy can run. He doesn't run as well as he used to,' " Hemond recalls. "It was hard for me to deny. Lou was on the ball.

"It was evident they had interest in Stanicek before I got here. Then here comes the spring, and we're talking about it. But I sensed maybe they were backing off.

"If Stanicek was involved, we had a chance. Then he didn't perform to Lou's satisfaction, and it was a good way for them to not close the deal.

"It didn't linger with a long discussion of other players. Stanicek would have been an important aspect of the deal for them, if he continued to look as he had earlier."

So, that was that.

Hemond and Piniella reportedly exchanged 20 phone calls during a three-day period, only to have Stanicek's condition foil their plans.

At the time, Lynn confirmed that the Orioles approached his agent about waiving his no-trade clause. But he said jokingly: "The only way I would go to New York is if they named a candy bar after me."

To this day, Winfield insists he would have exercised his own veto power, if only to spite Steinbrenner. Then again, maybe EBW would have made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

It's all speculation now.

Stanicek came up lame.

And history took its course.

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