Five-man nucleus together today, but may split soon

April 01, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

Take a good look at the Orioles when they're introduced at Camden Yards today. It might be the last Opening Day they're all together, Mussina, Ripken and Anderson, Palmeiro and Alomar.

Those five players were the nucleus of the first Orioles team to reach the postseason since 1983. But Mussina, Ripken and Anderson can become free agents after this season, Palmeiro and Alomar after the next.

So, this could be it, the Orioles' best chance to return to the World Series in their current form. They still might sign Mussina, Ripken and Anderson to contract extensions. But the odds are against keeping all three.

Ripken appears the most likely to stay, then Anderson. But Mussina -- the most important member of the group -- likely will declare for free agency and leave for some outrageous deal.

Think about it: If the Orioles don't want to sign Mussina below market value, what makes anyone think they would sign him at market value?

The only way they'll look smart now is if Mussina gets hurt, so they still look dumb. Mussina was scratched from today's Opening Day start with a sore right elbow, but he's been injured only once previously, and then the circumstances were extenuating. His problem resulted from a high pitch count in Detroit and/or a brawl he triggered to fulfill the wishes of others.

He's still only 28.

The Orioles won't be the same without him.

They should win the AL East. The Yankees won't be as charmed this season. The Blue Jays have questions about their offense, outfield defense and bullpen. The Orioles could use another quality starter, but they look like the best all-around team.

They had better be, because it might be awhile before they're this good again. The loss of Mussina would haunt the franchise, and create a bitter aftertaste even if the Orioles won the World Series.

Indeed, you can already predict the fallout.

Some fans will question why Mussina refused to negotiate during the season -- the Orioles, in their Jon Miller mode, will say they were ready to resume talks. Others will brand Mussina a union pawn or a greedy traitor.

The reality is, Mussina has wanted to sign an extension for more than a year. His demands were more than reasonable. And still the Orioles couldn't get it done.

If the club makes him a fair offer during the season, he should take it, deadline or no deadline. But there's no indication that will happen, no indication that Peter Angelos recognizes how difficult it is to replace a No. 1 starter.

For the first time, it is fair to question the owner's willingness to compete for high-priced players. He's no Eli Jacobs, never will be, but if he loses one or more out of this group, what happens when it's time to re-sign Palmeiro and Alomar?

Ripken and Mussina started in Baltimore; Anderson made his name here. Palmeiro and Alomar were already established when they joined the club as free agents. Their ties to the team, and to the city, are not as deep.

In other words, they'll go for the money -- particularly Alomar, who signed for less than he expected the last time around. Why would they stay? Without Mussina, and perhaps Ripken and Anderson, the team won't be as good.

The farm system isn't producing replacements. The free-agent market isn't a viable option. If Angelos won't give Mussina $7 million, he's not going to give Greg Maddux $10 million. Apparently, he doesn't believe players are worth that much.

Logically, he's right.

Practically, he's dead wrong.

And yet, his stance shouldn't be that surprising. If anything, his evolution as owner is following a familiar pattern: Owner buys team. Owner spends freely. Owner recoils in horror at game's economics.

It happened to Houston's Drayton McLane. It happened to San Francisco's Peter Magowan. And now it's happening to Angelos, who drew 3.6 million fans last season, advanced two rounds in the playoffs and claimed to lose $5 million.

Union chief Donald Fehr believes him, and Angelos keeps promising to open his books and disclose his losses. Still, what's that going to settle? The other owners won't care. They'll just keep spending.

Clearly, baseball is in trouble if the Orioles can't turn a profit. But with a new labor agreement, interleague play and renewed corporate interest, the game is supposedly recovering.

The Orioles aren't the Pirates or Expos, lacking the fan base to support a high payroll. It's one thing to show fiscal responsibility. It's another to rebel against the system. Angelos is fighting a war he can't win.

The fans don't care if he's the lone voice of reason in a world gone mad -- they want a champion. They're paying higher ticket prices. They're paying to see Mussina and Ripken and Anderson.

Thirteen years, that's how long it took for this franchise to return to the postseason. Success often comes at a steep price, but the best organizations -- the Atlantas, the Clevelands -- deal with it.

Angelos has been building toward this moment, toward becoming a contender, toward winning the World Series. Now, he's close to achieving his mission, but seems ready to abandon it.

Enjoy the season.

The Orioles might not be the same again.

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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