How GM Gillick remade Orioles in only a month

January 07, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Nobody could possibly dial a phone as quickly as new Orioles general manager Pat Gillick, said farm director Syd Thrift. He has hundreds of phone numbers memorized, and as he ends one conversation, Gillick already has his index finger moving to the buttons. An amazing thing to watch, Thrift said.

Gillick went to Florida on Dec. 11, and he and Johnson met

with Leiter and with Torres, Alomar's agent. Gillick came away feeling good about his chances of signing Leiter, although the bidding was progressing at an extraordinary rate: The Orioles' three-year offer had increased from $5.5 million to $8.6 million.

But shortly after midnight the morning of Dec. 15, Leiter's agent woke up Florida GM Dave Dombrowski at home to tell him the pitcher wanted to sign with the Marlins.

Gillick looked depressed as he announced the signing of Myers the next day. He had wanted Leiter badly. "Well," he said determinedly that afternoon, "we'll get somebody else."

They did. Gillick had talked with Atlanta GM John Schuerholz about Mercker, and on Dec. 16, Schuerholz told Gillick he wanted two prospects -- reliever Joe Borowski and left-hander Rachaad Stewart.

Thrift agonized over surrendering Stewart. Gillick tried to replace Stewart in the trade, but Schuerholz said no Stewart, no deal.

Gillick wanted to do the deal as quickly as possible for reasons of logistics: Schuerholz was at a Mexican hideaway on a fishing trip with Braves manager Bobby Cox, and Gillick figured no other major-league GM would know where to contact Schuerholz. He wanted to finish the trade before Schuerholz returned to his office Dec. 18 and began calling around to other clubs to deal Mercker. At 9 p.m. on Dec. 17, Gillick and Schuerholz swapped pitchers.

Molitor gets the assist

Whether or not they signed Molitor to play third, Gillick wanted Surhoff, a versatile player coming off the best year of his career. Surhoff could move to the outfield, catch, DH -- whatever the Orioles needed. And Gillick knew that Surhoff's wife, Polly Winde, was from the Baltimore area.

Leaving Milwaukee would be hard for Surhoff. The Brewers made Surhoff a three-year offer, improved it to four years, and planned to plaster his picture on the cover of their media guide. Surhoff fretted, too, over matters of family: One of the Surhoffs' sons has a form of autism, and they would have to find a school here comparable to the one he attended in Milwaukee. (This is a primary reason Surhoff asked the Orioles for a full no-trade clause.)

The Surhoffs found such a school after traveling to Baltimore on Dec. 15. Some close to him encouraged him to sign with the Orioles. But Surhoff continued to weigh his allegiance to the Brewers, and delayed his decision.

Gillick had seen this situation before, with Molitor after the 1992 season. Molitor fretted before finally leaving the Brewers -- a decision he ultimately would feel good about. Gillick, sure that Milwaukee owner Bud Selig was playing to Surhoff's sympathies, played his own trump card: He asked Molitor to call his good friend Surhoff and offer some advice.

Molitor did so, and on Dec. 20, Surhoff left the Brewers to sign a three-year deal with the Orioles.

McDonald rejects $2.8M

The Orioles executives decided early on that they wanted Ben McDonald back. The former No. 1 pick had a history with the team, and he was well-liked by other players. In September, Cal Ripken, the most influential member of the organization, said the Orioles should re-sign McDonald.

However, their medical reports indicated McDonald had suffered slight tear in his rotator cuff -- the type of injury many others had pitched through, but still a concern. And McDonald was coming off a season in which he had won three games. Gillick determined he would retain McDonald only if the price was right.

McDonald's salary in 1995 was $4.5 million, and McDonald's agent, Scott Boras, asked for $3.3 million plus incentive clauses that would allow McDonald to reach $4.5 million. Too high for Gillick. On Dec. 20, Gillick called Boras to tell him the Orioles would not tender McDonald a contract for 1996, effectively releasing the pitcher. Boras responded with 30 seconds of silence.

At some point during the next 48 hours, McDonald called Angelos and told him how much he liked playing for the Orioles, how he wanted to finish his career in Baltimore. Angelos had always liked McDonald's enthusiasm, and had a soft spot for the pitcher.

zTC Gillick offered McDonald a $2.8 million deal, with incentives to reach about $3.5 million. But, Gillick said, Boras held to his request for $3.3 million, with incentives to reach $4.5 million. As far as Gillick was concerned, it was time to look elsewhere for the last starter to fill out the rotation.

Cone gets away

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