Orioles sit back and watch hardball


August 02, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was a perfect piece of symbolism: On the last day Eli Jacobs owned the Orioles, the talk at the ballpark was about a big trade made by another team.

"It's not like it's surprising or anything," said Harold Reynolds about Rickey Henderson's moving from the A's to the Blue Jays. "Everyone knew it was coming."

Just like everyone knew the Orioles wouldn't pull it off.

"The Blue Jays make a big deal like that every year," David Segui said. "They're rolling in the money up there."

Of course, the Orioles are rolling in just as much, give or take a few mil. According to Fay Vincent, they had baseball's highest operating profit in 1992. Their books are every bit as rosy as Toronto's.

There's no reason for these clubs to approach the business of roster-building any differently. But, goodness, they do.

The idea of the Orioles' acquiring Henderson was almost laughable. They said they tried hard, came close. Whatever. You didn't take it seriously, did you? The chances of it happening were about the same as the chances of the warehouse taking off for the moon like a rocket ship.

With these two teams, see, it's not about the amount of money in the team kitty. It's about attitude, boldness, the willingness to shoot high. The willingness to part with some of that kitty money.

It's about the willingness to repay the millions of fans who have filled their ballparks -- and made their books so rosy -- by building the best team possible.

The Jays do their best. The Orioles don't come close.

Shall we go through this once more for old times' sake? It all comes back to Jacobs. He never agreed to spend what was needed to pirate away a Henderson, a Ruben Sierra or any other four-star talent who would widen the tightrope-thin margin of error Jacobs forced them to walk.

We'll never know what he did do with all the profits. Not that it matters anymore. Let's just hope that the new owners are a little more, ah, gracious with their cash.

Jacobs did spend to rebuild the farm system and install a smart front office that built a contender on a cheap cornerstone. The franchise rose from the nadir of 0-21 with wise drafts and an uncanny knack for finding bargain talent.

But when it comes to making the bold move a low-dollar team invariably needs to make, the Orioles go as limp as an empty uniform. They worry about what makes sense. They play softball.

The Jays get strong and aggressive. The Jays deal now, worry later and win divisions. They play hardball.

The Jays didn't need Henderson. They already had one of baseball's best lineups. They needed pitching more than hitting. But now, with Henderson, they have a lineup so potent that it almost seems unfair. If they get any kind of pitching at all, they'll score enough to win. They widened their margin of error considerably.

"What does Rickey add? What doesn't he add?" Joe Carter said.

The Orioles didn't really need Henderson, either. They're solid in the outfield. They were more in need of an everyday third baseman or another starting pitcher. By not making the trade, they didn't add to a position of strength in the outfield.

They can take solace in that while they lag behind the Jays down the stretch. Understand, it's not that this specific move -- getting outbid for Henderson -- is so wrong. These rent-a-player, late-season trades aren't the smart way to go. The Jays gave up another prospect. They've given up a lot. That's a dangerous way to play.

No, the Orioles erred last winter, when they failed to ante up for one of the available power-hitting, free-agent outfielders. They wouldn't have cost a prospect.

The Jays, meanwhile, took their share of off-season hits, but they fought back by signing Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart. And when they began the season with a better team than the Orioles, the Orioles were in trouble. Because you knew Jays GM Pat Gillick would pull off another deal.

"Was there ever any doubt it would happen?" Reynolds said.

Just imagine the confidence that the Orioles' inaction instills in Gillick. He doesn't have to worry about their outflanking him. He knows he can top them, knows for absolute certain.

The Orioles, for the most part, just shook their heads yesterday.

"Rickey is certainly a piece of the puzzle for them," Reynolds said.

"I can't control what the Blue Jays do," manager Johnny Oates said. "They could go around and put together an All-Star team for all I can do about it."

Well, someone said, that's precisely what they've done.

Oates managed a grim smile. The joke was on him.

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