O's failing history class with Mussina

March 25, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In 1979, the California Angels failed to re-sign Nolan Ryan after he went 16-14. Former general manager Buzzie Bavasi cracked, "All we have to do is find two 8-7 pitchers." Ryan went on to pitch 15 more years, win 157 more games and record 2,805 more strikeouts.

In 1992, the Chicago Cubs failed to re-sign Greg Maddux after he won his first Cy Young Award. Former general manager Larry Himes used the money he saved to sign five nondescript veterans. Maddux went on to win three more Cy Youngs with Atlanta.

Now it's 1997, and history is about to repeat.

The Orioles have one week to sign Mike Mussina to a contract extension, or they almost certainly will lose the ace right-hander to free agency at the end of the season.

The two sides plan to suspend negotiations after Opening Day, not that it matters, since they haven't talked seriously in weeks, and don't intend to resume discussions.

"At this point," Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said, "we are where we are."

Or, as Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, put it, "There's nothing more we can say."

Can you believe this?

Mussina appears as good as gone.

The Orioles will maintain exclusive negotiating rights through the World Series, but Mussina said yesterday that he likely would file for free agency rather than try to close a deal quickly at the end of the season, whenever that might be.

"If I get to that point," he said, "why not?"

Mussina understands the game -- he might command a five-year, $40 million contract on the open market. It's the Orioles who don't get it. Mussina is 28. He owns the highest winning percentage among active major-league pitchers. And he's willing accept below market value to stay in Baltimore.

What more do you want?

It's encouraging that the Orioles appear close to signing future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken to an extension, but their intransigence on Mussina and even center fielder Brady Anderson defies logic.

Mussina won 19 games last year in his worst statistical season. Anderson hit 50 home runs, a total topped by only three left-handed hitters in major-league history. Yet, the Orioles are showing little interest in retaining either beyond 1997.

Club officials apparently are formulating a proposal for Anderson, but if they're so interested in keeping him, why have they gone four months without making another offer?

Anderson will be 34 Opening Day 1998, but there's no one in the farm system to replace him. The only way the Orioles could justify losing him is if they signed Ripken and Mussina, and needed to trim the payroll elsewhere.

But they're at a standstill with Mussina.

"We have been close, but obviously they were prepared to draw a line, and so far they have," Tellem said. "That's their choice. While we don't necessarily agree, we're not upset at all. We understand these are business decisions teams make. Our hope is that a deal will get done. Whether it's now or the end of the year doesn't concern me."

The Orioles apparently are willing to guarantee the third year of Mussina's extension, or at least make it attainable through a vested option. The issues now are deferred money, and the total value of the package. Mussina will earn $6.85 million this season. He probably wants $7 million per year in present-day value.

That would make him an absolute bargain in today's market, yet the Orioles still won't jump. Maybe they believe the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Mussina is too slightly built to remain a dominant pitcher. Maybe they believe his big-game difficulties last season were an omen. Maybe they believe he is not a true No. 1 starter.

"If that's their opinion," Mussina said, "that's funny."

He is 90-41 lifetime. He struggled last season, but he didn't get along with pitching coach Pat Dobson, and was troubled by the deaths of 21 residents of his native Montoursville, Pa., in the crash of TWA Flight 800. Now he has Ray Miller as his pitching coach, and veteran Jimmy Key as a mentor. This could be the season he finally wins 20 games.

So, what's the Orioles' problem?

The most logical explanation is that owner Peter Angelos apparently is fed up with the game's economics, and is determined to reverse the trend on salary growth. Of course, he'd be doing precisely that by signing Mussina below market value. But rather than leap at such a deal, he's engaging in baseball's version of Custer's Last Stand.

It's a battle he can't win. Not after pledging to deliver a World Series champion to Baltimore. And not after raising ticket prices this season, saying it would be the only way to maintain a high payroll.

The system stinks, everyone knows it, but does Angelos seriously think he can stop the game's inflationary spiral? If he wants to compete, he needs to sign high-priced players. And if he doesn't, he should just sell the team.

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