Beggar gets his choice if Van Slyke is O's CF

April 19, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For all you fans still bitter about the baseball strike, all you fans who said you would love to see a player have to beg for a job just once, this is your lucky day.

Andy Van Slyke originally wanted $2 million to play in 1995. Didn't get it. Then, the Orioles say, he turned down their $1 million offer, as if he could find a better one else- where. Didn't get that either, apparently.

Now, with the demand for his services apparently less than hot, he is joining the Orioles' spring training camp without a contract. Trying out, basically. Hoping the Orioles still want him -- at their $700,000 price.

It's the closest you'll ever get to seeing a major-leaguer beg. Van Slyke has no leverage, not if he wants to play on a contender.

But even though he is being forced to beg, and even though he will get less than half of the $2 million he originally wanted, the joke will hardly be on him.

It looks as if he could wind up with the job he wanted all along, starting in center field for the Orioles.

Bet on it.

Yes, manager Phil Regan has been outspoken all spring about his fondness for Curtis Goodwin. And yes, the club just signed Kevin Bass to play the outfield.

But Goodwin is hitting .250 in spring training and, let's face it, it's a stretch to envision him jumping straight from Bowie to the Orioles and playing well enough to be in the lineup every day.

And why rush him when a Van Slyke is available as a one-year insurance policy?

Bass? He's a solution Eli Jacobs would have loved, a player with a solid record, but cheaper than Van Slyke -- and not as good.

No, Van Slyke is the player the Orioles want in center. Suddenly, that was as clear as the blue Florida sky yesterday.

As long as he is healthy, as long as the bad back that bothered him last year is no longer problematic, Van Slyke is the answer.

Bet on it.

"If he's healthy, he can start in center field," manager Phil Regan said after the Orioles' loss to the Phillies at Jack Russell Stadium yesterday. "He's a winning player. A good person to have on your ballclub."

Regan insisted that the club's mind wasn't made up yet, that the decision to bring Van Slyke into camp didn't mean the job was his automatically.

"I want to see if he's healthy," Regan said. "We should be able to tell in two or three or four days."

But they already have a pretty good idea. They have had a scout in place for several days at the players' union camp in Homestead, where Van Slyke has been working out. They already know how he feels, and they wouldn't be going to the trouble of staging a tryout if they weren't happy with what they'd seen.

They'll be taking a risk if they go ahead and sign him, of course: at age 34, coming off a poor, injury-prone year, he could blow up at any time. Or continue the decline.

But for $700,000, which isn't much in baseball dollars, the risk is worth taking. If Van Slyke is healthy, or even close, he could give them a star center fielder at best and a sound, heads-up ballplayer at worst.

"He can do so many things to help you: hit, steal a base, play the field," Regan said.

The only downside is that signing him would mean the club basically has misled Goodwin and Damon Buford, who have heard a lot of talk this spring -- particularly from general manager Roland Hemond -- about how the club was "comfortable" with its young talent and wanted to give it a chance to bloom.

So much for that.

But Goodwin is only 22 and hasn't even played at Triple-A yet, and Van Slyke doesn't figure to be an Oriole for long, so there's little harm done there.

2l Buford has been around longer and has every right to gripe about not getting a chance. But he probably will end up as Regan's right-handed option to the left-handed Van Slyke.

But the Orioles' goal is to put their best possible club on the field this year, and putting Van Slyke in center clearly is a step in that TTC direction. He's a proven talent with vast upside possibilities, and more of a sure thing than Goodwin or Buford.

And, hey, if it turns out that Goodwin gets a chance in June and turns out to be the next Rickey Henderson, well, Van Slyke won't gripe on the bench.

The biggest mystery of the whole situation is why it has taken so long to get to this point. Van Slyke wanted to come to Baltimore all along. The club wanted him all along. Yet the club turned down his previous offer to come to camp and work out. And Van Slyke turned down a $1 million offer he clearly should have taken. You figure it out.

Oh, well. The point is that they're together now.

Playing in two or three exhibition games without a contract is certainly bizarre, a sign of desperation no member of the union would have even considered as recently as last spring.

But Van Slyke has no choice. The buyers are ruling the market in baseball this spring.

Not that Van Slyke is going to wind up a loser for having to beg.

He's going to wind up in center field on Opening Day.

Bet on it.

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