O's cannot afford to lose Anderson

November 07, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

What would be even worse for the Orioles, from the standpoint of satisfying the fans, than losing Davey Johnson?

That's easy.

Losing Johnson and Brady Anderson would be worse.

If Peter Angelos thinks he is catching heat now, after losing the winningest active manager in the major leagues, wait until he feels the heat he would catch if Anderson leaves, too.

Johnson's departure, as ill-advised as it is, isn't liable to stop many fans from buying tickets -- fans don't pay to watch managers -- but Anderson's departure would cause a measurable mutiny.

Not only is he the second-most popular Oriole, after Cal Ripken, but he also is all but irreplaceable as a center fielder, leadoff hitter and junior Iron Man.

In other words, the Orioles almost have to sign him after the public relations disaster of the Johnson debacle.

They needed to sign him, anyway, for his many and obvious on-field assets, but now they really need to sign him.

If he goes elsewhere as a free agent, in the wake of Johnson's resignation, more than a few Orioles fans will begin to wonder if they and the club are on the same page.

Even if Angelos were to throw money at a big-name replacement, such as a Kenny Lofton, the loss of Anderson would discourage fans, damage continuity and serve only to further the notion that the Orioles have become baseball's Bronx Zoo of the '90s.

It would cost the Orioles at the gate, period -- and on the field just as much, if not more.

Not that Johnson's departure hurts Anderson's chances of returning, because it doesn't; Anderson supported Johnson, but he wasn't one of those zealous loyalists.

He wants to keep playing for the Orioles, regardless of who is managing. He recently told Sun reporter Joe Strauss that he would accept less money to stay here.

Only here is he an idol, a first-name celebrity, a familiar creature of the night; anywhere else, he is just another player.

Few players have a stronger bond with their team, fans and city.

Of course, that bond isn't worth much when other teams start talking about big money -- bigger than the Orioles expected when they set out to re-sign Anderson.

They had a chance to get him on their terms in the past year, but they'll have to get him on Anderson's terms now that he has filed for free agency -- and his terms will make them sweat, you can be sure.

His terms will force Angelos to make some hard decisions.

The negotiations began some 16 months ago, in the midst of Anderson's breakout '96 season, and seemed close to a settlement several times, most recently last April.

Angelos' last offer, in August, was for four years and $23 million, with $5 million deferred. Anderson wanted $24 million with none deferred, plus an option for a fifth year with a $2 million buyout.

That's a gap, but not a chasm, and the chances of success seemed real with Angelos and Anderson doing the talking themselves.

But the signing never came, and never came, and never came -- and now, with Anderson having filed for free agency and reportedly been approached by six teams, including the Yankees, the situation is drastically different.

The price has risen, possibly to as much as $8 million a year, or even more, depending on the whims of the market.

That's more than any other Oriole makes, including Ripken, whom the club would rather not layer over in the salary structure, given what Ripken symbolizes to the franchise.

So, do the Orioles break down and give Anderson more than Ripken?

It's somewhat of a gamble, seeing as Anderson will turn 33 in January, meaning he would be 36 in the final year of a four-year deal -- not exactly the peak of his career.

But Anderson is a highly unusual player who has had a highly unusual career, blooming very late -- his last two seasons have been his best -- and he's also a fitness freak who can be expected to stay in superb shape, so the age risk probably is minimal.

A bigger threat would be an injury, it seems, seeing as Anderson already has played with numerous injuries in the past two years.

But that's precisely why he is so valuable -- he played on and on despite being injured, doing much to help set a professional tone in the clubhouse that seeped right out onto the field.

Unlike the typical modern player who finds reasons not to play, Anderson finds reasons not to sit out.

You can't pay such a player enough, particularly if he has Anderson's skills and dependability.

Such a player is the kind you can build around -- and with all the managerial instability the Orioles have experienced, they need dependable cornerstones.

Anderson has been one for quite a while now, which is why he has become, in many ways, the touchstone player of the '90s Orioles.

More than any other Oriole except Ripken, it's hard to imagine him wearing another uniform.

His departure would be an even more profound debacle than Johnson's resignation or Jon Miller's exit.

Whether or not Angelos realizes it, the Orioles can ill afford another such uproar.

They almost have to sign Anderson, regardless of the price.

Pub Date: 11/07/97

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