At last, a great sign for Orioles fans

December 13, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

Did the Orioles get the right free-agent first baseman among the two All-Stars who were available this winter?

Who cares?

What's important is they got one.

What's important is that, finally, at long last, they're taking a shot.

They're making the big December play that they've needed to make for years. They're spending the money it takes to deliver the big-name players who could help them catch the Blue Jays.

Finally, at long last, they're treating their fans with a little respect.

It will take three or four years to determine whether Will Clark or Rafael Palmeiro was the right first baseman to plug into the middle of the lineup. Either probably would have sufficed, truthfully. But as much as the settling of that issue will have impact on the Orioles' future, what's important today is the bigger picture.

What's important today is that, with the signing of Sid Fernandez, and now with today's signing of Palmeiro to a five-year contract worth an estimated $30 million, the Orioles have sent out an unmistakable beacon call:

L They have become major players in baseball's mad, mad world.

The Eli Jacobs era, otherwise known as the Big Lie, is finally and officially dead.

It's about time.

No longer are the Orioles making life easier for the Jays by cutting huge corners on account of cheapness. No longer are they filling critical holes in their lineup with aging, fading stars and Rule V draftees.

Now they are doing what a team with their vast riches should do: using some of the profits to get better players.

Peter Angelos promised he would do it as soon as he bought the ballclub, and while his boast seemed shaky for a while after he balked at Clark's price, he has delivered in the end. Let's give the man credit. He shot as high as an owner could in this weak year for free agents. Palmeiro and Fernandez are at the top of the class.

What's interesting is to consider what would have happened had Angelos bought the team a year ago, when such players as Ruben Sierra, Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek and Greg Maddux were up for auction. Or two years ago, when Bobby Bonilla was there for the taking. That's not to say that Angelos would have signed any of them, or that the Orioles aren't better off today with Palmeiro and Fernandez. But they probably would have taken these bold steps a lot sooner. And as close as they were in the past two Septembers, who knows what would have happened?

But, of course, the bottom line always ruled with Jacobs -- and signing big free agents was a pipe dream. In the city of the baseball monster, with attendance and profits skyrocketing, the club raised ticket prices and talked about building a contender, but consistently failed to take its best shot.

It was the Big Lie.

Pledges to improve were made, but corners were cut time and again. Remember when Mickey Tettleton was dumped to make room for Glenn Davis' salary? Remember when that hole in right field wasn't patched last winter, when Chito or Luis was the Not-So-Great Debate?

It was a set of circumstances that bordered on fraud. With millions of tickets sold in advance and colossal profits assured, only a small portion of the money was used to better the product. The fans were, simply, taken for granted.

No more. The Orioles needed pitching and a big bat this winter, and they've gone and gotten the best of both that was available. Whether the new mix succeeds doesn't really matter, although, of course, it would be fun. But the point is that at least the club finally is making a good-faith effort. You can't ask for more.

In years to come, the signing of Palmeiro and Fernandez can be used as Exhibit A in the advantages of committed local ownership. From the day he bought the club, Angelos has understood the importance and responsibility that came attached to his new position. He has understood that the Orioles were important here. He has understood there was a right thing to do.

Jacobs never did understand, or, if he did, he didn't care. Why should he care? He didn't have to answer to his friends who had grown up listening to Chuck.

So, cheer up, people. The expansion thing was a certifiable drag, as was living with Eli's arrogant penny-pinching for five years, but there is good news at hand for all those who bleed Bird blood.

The fun is beginning.

No longer will you have to suffer through the idea of Darrell Sherman or Dwight Evans as a potential Answer.

The Orioles are taking the high road. The road onto which their ledger sheet should have steered them long ago.

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