McDonald, O's need to work it out

September 14, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Whether Ben McDonald pitches in relief is not the issue. Whether he pitches well in relief is not the issue, either.

The issue is next season.

Will McDonald be back?

Cooler heads prevailed yesterday, ending the Orioles' latest ridiculous crisis. McDonald agreed to work out of the bullpen after manager Phil Regan promised he'd warm up only once, just like a starter, to protect against re-injury.

It was a silly dispute that resulted from the usual club sins -- a lack of candor and communication -- and the usual player overreaction. Let's hope the swift resolution was a sign of things to come.

McDonald belongs in Baltimore. His teammates, including Cal Ripken, want him to stay in Baltimore. But the question ultimately is one for McDonald to decide.

The Orioles will offer him a contract. It might be the maximum 20 percent pay cut to $3.6 million. More likely, it would be an incentive-laden deal with a base salary in the $2 million range.

Even McDonald agrees he is due a pay cut from this season's $4.5 million. The question will boil down to pride. How much would he swallow?

To put it bluntly:

Is he a mercenary, or not?

McDonald seems to know the answer. But his agent, Scott Boras, is not yet involved.

"I want to be back here. I like the ballclub. I like the city. I like the fans," McDonald said yesterday. "I want to see this club win one day, and I want to be here when it happens. We'll go to most any measure to make sure I'm back."

Most any measure.

McDonald's phone will be ringing today. It will be Boras, instructing him to stop talking so rationally.

Many fans perceive McDonald as a whiner, but in truth, he's one of the good guys, a gamer who had missed only one of 104 starts before suffering a shoulder injury this season.

He listened to Rick Sutcliffe, who taught him to be a warrior. And he listens to Jim Palmer, who called him yesterday morning about his dispute with Regan, and three weeks ago about his future with the Orioles.

McDonald told Palmer he wanted to stay.

"I said, 'Well, make sure you find a way, then,' " Palmer recalled. "He said, 'I intend to do that.' "

Sounds great, but come this winter, Boras will have his say. And Boras' history -- with McDonald, with all of his clients -- is to go for every last dollar.

That's a problem for the Orioles, who already are committed to $26.5 million for six players. Assuming the current economic system remains in place, they almost certainly would decline to offer McDonald arbitration.

They're paying him $4.5 million for a season in which he likely will finish with two wins. They're not going to rush to offer him $3.6 million, even if it means allowing him to become a free agent.

No, their preference would be to sign McDonald for a lower base and enough incentives to get him close to his 1995 salary -- if he pitches, say, 200 innings.

It's called earning your money.

It's a concept McDonald ought to embrace.

"I know I don't deserve a raise," McDonald said. "I'm not expecting a raise. If I have to take some type of pay cut, I don't mind doing that.

"You get paid for what you do. I didn't do anything this year. I don't deserve a pay raise. I deserve a pay cut."

McDonald pointed out that he took a pay cut after the 1991 season without complaint. His career began with a prolonged holdout, and he went to arbitration this season. But between those disputes, things were fairly quiet.

Now, his credibility is at stake. He can't play games, and frankly, neither can the Orioles. If there's one thing they should have learned this season, it's that you can't just replace Player A with Player B, that this isn't Rotisserie ball.

Lee Smith and Mark McLemore had value beyond their actual statistics -- they were good soldiers, popular in the clubhouse. McDonald might be 57-51 lifetime, but he's still only 27.

His teammates love him.

His best years are ahead of him.

And he has a sense of what it means to wear the uniform.

"In order to remain competitive and have a chance to win, he's an important part of this club," said Ripken, who rarely comments on such matters.

Indeed, the Orioles should go to every reasonable length to keep McDonald. After losing Pete Harnisch and Curt Schilling, the sight of him winning 20 games for another club would be sickening.

Sure, they might get another quality starter or two with the McDonald money, but who's to say Jimmy Haynes and Rick Krivda wouldn't do just as well as the bargain-basement pitchers they acquire?

This is a team that gave Chris Hoiles $17.25 million for no apparent reason, a team that gave Kevin Brown $4.225 million coming off a 7-9 season, a team that ate Matt Nokes' contract and bought out Sid Fernandez.

It could splurge for McDonald.

Owner Peter Angelos met with Boras in early August, and afterward pledged to make McDonald a fair offer, whatever that means.

McDonald is an Oriole.

His agent should know it.

His team should know it.

Start from there.

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