Owners cut to chase in their race to chaos

November 30, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles brought in Julio Franco for a physical yesterday, but don't expect general manager Roland Hemond to start singing "Me and Julio Down by the Ballyard" anytime soon.

By next week, the Orioles will be nearly $2.5 million over the salary cap. By next week, Ben McDonald and Chris Hoiles will be restricted free agents. By next week, the only thing Hemond will be singing is the blues.

It's coming, it's all coming. Federal mediator William J. Usery is useless. Yesterday's negotiations in Leesburg, Va., were pointless. The owners are on the verge of declaring an impasse in the labor talks and implementing their own economic system.

This ain't no field of dreams.

It's apocalypse now.

Poor Hemond, he's even more paralyzed than usual. Signing Franco would make sense if the Orioles lost Harold Baines as their designated hitter. But that's not the kind of replacement player the owners have in mind.

Cal Ripken's streak? You'd better believe it's in jeopardy. There's no end to the owners' gall. They're going to sell tickets. They're going to open spring training camps. They're going to play the 1995 season -- with or without the players union.

The owners absorbed staggering losses and canceled the World Series to reach this point, and now they'repoised for the kill. The players are resigned to the inevitable. They're not even bothering with counterproposals. They'd rather fight in Congress, and in the courts.

So, what's a GM to do?

If you're desperate to rebuild like the New York Mets' Joe McIlvaine, you pull off two trades in two days, acquiring pitcher Pete Harnisch from Houston, then minor-league outfielder Carl Everett from Florida.

But if you're Hemond, you wait.

The Orioles turned down Harnisch for Brad Pennington, which tells you all you need to know about the chaotic state of the game. Even when trades appear potentially lopsided, teams can't distinguish between moves that might work, and moves that might haunt them later.

Houston GM Bob Watson said he "went down the highway a pretty good distance" with the Orioles before talks broke off Sunday. He traded Harnisch to the Mets the next day for at least one player to be named.

Perhaps the Orioles feared Harnisch would suffer a recurrence of arm trouble -- he missed four weeks with a partial tear in his right biceps last season. Then again, Harnisch was 6-1 with a 3.81 ERA after coming off the disabled list. The Mets obviously weren't concerned.

They risked the loss of two minor-leaguers, knowing Harnisch likely will become a restricted free agent next week. What do the Mets care? They're only $28,000 over the proposed salary cap. They'll find a way to pay Harnisch.

The Orioles are in the opposite position. Under the owners' proposal, they'll be forced to cut their payroll from a projected $44 million to $41.6 million -- a daunting task, considering they'll need to match other clubs' offers to retain their own restricted free agents, McDonald and Hoiles.

The owners have it all figured out, don't they? They're going teliminate salary arbitration and create a salary scale for zero- to four-year players. Then they're going to increase the number of free agents, but limit the spending power of the teams most willing to sign them.

Indeed, the new system will be terrible for the Orioles, who still adhere to the radical notion of free enterprise. They want to sign free agents -- players such as Bill Swift, Jay Buhner and Kevin Brown -- but how can they?

"You've got to deal with some caution right now," Hemond said. "You don't know the rules you're playing under. Rather than moving furiously and regretting the moves you make, you have to weigh all the issues."

Who's to say Hemond's wrong? Who to say he's right? The only thing certain is that player movement soon will come to a halt. No self-respecting union member is going to sign a contract with a salary cap in effect -- it would be a tacit endorsement of the owners' plan.

So, in a sense, all this is much ado about nothing. Chances are, the rules will change on Hemond more than once before this is over.

Think about it: What if Congress repeals the labor portion of baseball's antitrust exemption? The players would take their fight to court, citing labor practices in violation of antitrust laws -- and in all likelihood, forcing the owners into a settlement.

That settlement probably would result in an economic system that has yet to be considered. The future is that uncertain, that unsettling, that unpredictable. This ain't no field of dreams. It's apocalypse now.

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