Palmer: Mussina holdup is ballpark-sized mystery

ON BASEBALL

March 23, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer has been watching the Mike Mussina contract dispute from afar, and he has come to the same conclusion as a lot of people in Baltimore.

What are the Orioles waiting for?

"I'm a little bit surprised that they haven't done it because his market value has been established," Palmer said. "I still think that his best years are ahead of him."

Mussina has often been compared to Palmer, who spent his entire career with the Orioles, but the issue is how he compares with the other premier pitchers in the game. Palmer says it shouldn't be an issue at all.

"I don't think that people realize how difficult it is to pitch in Camden Yards," he said, "and this guy wants to do it. It's a wonderful place to broadcast a game because every fly ball is a potential home run. It's a very tough place to pitch.

"I remember Sterling Hitchcock saying, 'They ought to bomb this place,' and Alex Fernandez told me, 'This place is a joke.' Mike wants to sign on."

The asking price is four years at $28 million. The Orioles' offer is three years guaranteed at the same annual salary. The Florida Marlins recently gave Fernandez five years for $35 million, so Mussina figures to command at least that if he becomes a free agent after the season.

Palmer points to what some of those other pitchers have done -- and haven't done -- at Oriole Park as the real proof of Mussina's value to the Orioles.

"Kent Mercker came over and he couldn't pitch there," Palmer said, "and look how well Sid Fernandez pitched after he went to Philadelphia. Most pitchers want to pitch in the Grand Canyon. Mike wants to pitch here.

"When you have a pitcher of the caliber of a Mike Mussina, you have to do everything you can if he's willing to sign for market value unless you don't really want to sign him, and maybe they don't."

Nevertheless, the former Orioles ace says the contract situation won't adversely affect the present Orioles ace during the regular season. If Mussina stays healthy, he's going to get more money than he can ever spend -- from somebody.

"It really doesn't matter what he does this year," Palmer said. "The main thing is just to avoid injury. But I'll be very surprised if he has an ERA as high as last year. I think he's going to win plus games and he gives you a chance to win every time out. There aren't many pitchers around like that."

The Orioles should take note of a similar situation 17 years ago. The California Angels were embroiled in a similar dispute with pitching ace Nolan Ryan, who had been offered $1 million per year by the Houston Astros.

The Angels let him go, and general manager Buzzie Bavasi scoffed that he could "buy two 8-7 pitchers" for the money Ryan was asking.

Of course, everyone knows what happened. Ryan was the biggest pitching star of the 1980s and the Angels must have spent $20 million over the next 10 years trying to replace him. It could happen here.

Irabu rules

The continuing saga of Hideki Irabu is further proof that Major League Baseball needs to move decisively to set up a new, standardized system for dealing with international players. The way things stand now, the teams with the most money -- or the best worldwide reputations -- have a clear advantage in the competition for the best international talent.

Irabu was Japan's ERA leader in 1995 and 1996 for the Chiba Lotte Marines, who reached an agreement in January that gave the San Diego Padres exclusive negotiating rights to the pitcher. Irabu repeatedly has said he wants to play only for the New York Yankees, who argued unsuccessfully that Irabu should be a free agent.

The Irabu situation is unusual, because it involves an existing contractual link to a major-league club, but most international players end up with the teams that spend the most overseas or have established a reputation for signing and promoting players from a particular region.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, now have a clear advantage in South Korea, where they signed pitcher Chan Ho Park. They also are one of the American teams that is most prominent in Japan, both because of the recent success of Hideo Nomo and because of a long relationship with the Japanese major leagues. The Yankees have an advantage over most teams because they have more money and because they are baseball's best-known franchise.

What's the answer? Baseball may soon adopt a worldwide draft, though that wouldn't have made any difference in the Irabu derby. The answer is a comprehensive, standardized set of rules to govern the signing of all international players.

"We've been talking about a lot of things," said acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "It's one of the subjects that comes up at every meeting of the executive council. We need a more standardized system for dealing with them, especially as these kind of situations begin to proliferate."

Thirty-second editorial

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