It's time for a save: O's owe it to Olson

February 07, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles could lose Gregg Olson because of a disagreement over money. This is a classic example of shortsighted management. Maybe the front office will wake up in time to, uh, save him.

Olson has given the club half a decade of top-notch closing -- 160 saves, a 2.25 ERA, a save percentage as consistently high as anyone's other than Dennis Eckersley -- and in return been paid what amounts to a pittance in today's baseball money.

He has been as important to the club as any player, yet he has earned in five years what a top free agent earns in one. In other words, he has been a steal.

Yet now that he has an elbow injury that clouds his future, the club is balking at paying him enough to ensure that he remains in Baltimore.

It wouldn't be surprising behavior if Eli Jacobs, Baltimore's baseball Scrooge, still owned the team. But it's very surprising for the Orioles of new owner Peter Angelos, who has otherwise backed up his promise to pay to build a contender.

Under Angelos, the club has taken many forward steps this off-season. But they all could be offset by the failure to sign Olson.

The Braves lost two World Series in large part because they lacked a closer. The Phillies went down with poor Mitch Williams. You can't cut corners on your closer if you want to win the Series.

Sure, the club probably can get by with Lee Smith this year. Smith still can do the job even if he is aging and starting to lose inches on his fastball. Signing him was a smart move that did much to ensure that the club would have a closer this year no matter what happened with Olson.

But what about '95? Or '96? Smith's signing doesn't make Olson expendable. Hardly. Smith is just a Band-Aid, strictly a short-term solution. At 36, he doesn't have many years left. Olson, nine years younger, is the long-term solution. The Orioles won't find a better closer.

Yes, there is the chance that his injury is serious, that he will never be the same. But some team is going to take a gamble on him in '94, hoping that he ultimately makes a long-term return to health and all-star form. The Orioles should be the ones taking the gamble, particularly considering how much they have gotten from Olson for so relatively little pay.

Maybe Angelos doesn't believe he owes Olson a dime for past glories. You can see his point. But the club's history didn't begin when Angelos bought the team. He should respect those players who have respected the franchise with their play.

Of course, Angelos is balking mostly because of Glenn Davis, because he is afraid to spend a penny on any player who might not produce because of injuries. You can't blame him for establishing that as a theoretical guideline, particularly when the money could be used to sign another pitcher, such as, say, Pete Harnisch.

But the Orioles have more than enough money to do both. And besides, there are times when you don't act theoretically or logically. This is such a time. Olson is a special case. He is a pearl. He has more saves at a younger age that any other player in major-league history. He has the potential to fill one of baseball's toughest positions for a decade. To gamble on such a player is just the price of doing business.

Now, admittedly, when the word was that Olson might get a long contract worth many millions from some team with a chunk of the money guaranteed, the Orioles were not wrong to say that was beyond their limit.

But as spring training nears, it is becoming apparent that no team is going to offer Olson a long deal with a lot of guaranteed money. The Angels have said they're dropping out of the derby. Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick said during the weekend that he hadn't spoken to Olson's agent in a month. The Phillies signed Norm Charlton. The Yankees' interest is hard to measure.

It seems increasingly possible that no team will take a long, expensive chance on Olson. Even then, he might choose not to come back to the Orioles. He is too proud not to be bitter about the way the club didn't offer him a contract in December and generally gave him the cold shoulder this winter.

He has every right to be bitter. The Orioles had a moral obligation to offer him a contract, but froze in their fear of arbitration. They played hardball with a guy who has already parachuted into more hot fires than any other player in club history, then went out and gave $43 million to players who haven't ever worn the Orioles uniform.

Perhaps it's already too late, but they should try to right the wrong. Give Olson some money if he comes to them with an offer. Tell him that he can relax, that he doesn't need to rush his arm this year. Treat him with the respect he deserves. Wake up, Orioles. You're blowing this save.

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