O's have let window slam on fingers

November 21, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

If Brady Anderson takes the money and runs to Atlanta or New York or elsewhere, you can blame it on one of two things.

Either the Orioles never really wanted him back in the first place, or they grossly miscalculated what it would take to bring him back.

Either way, the burden of blame for his departure would belong primarily on the Orioles, not on Anderson himself.

The Orioles would blame the crazy baseball market for driving his price beyond his worth -- the Braves have offered a four-year, $30 million deal -- and they'd certainly blame him for selling out for big money instead of staying home like a good, little soldier.

Don't buy it.

Yes, the market is crazy, and, yes, Anderson apparently isn't going to settle for a lot less to remain an Oriole, as Mike Mussina did.

But the situation never had to come to this, and it wouldn't have come to this if the Orioles had responded more decisively long ago.

That indecision is what gives rise to the idea that they weren't quite as determined as they have said to bring Anderson back.

Yes, it's hard to say they didn't want him when they were close to signing him several times and yesterday offered him $25 million -- we should all have to experience such "feigned" interest from an employer.

And it's true Anderson had a role in the failed talks, changing a key demand at one point just when the sides were getting close.

But the fact is that the Orioles, with owner Peter Angelos doing most of the talking, always seemed to offer just enough not to get the deal done.

When Anderson wanted $18 million, the Orioles offered $15 million.

When Anderson wanted $24 million, they offered $23 million.

When Anderson's demand for a no-trade clause was all that separated them, the Orioles didn't budge.

Combine that with the undeniable truth that Angelos always gets what he really wants, and you have more than enough artillery for any card-carrying conspiracy theorist (blush).

That's not to say the Orioles didn't want Anderson, period.

They wanted him on their terms, meaning not too much money for not too long.

They originally envisioned him as a $5 million player, or a $6 million player, tops. And they also wanted him for no more than three years, considering that he would be 38 in the fourth year of a new deal.

Their interest may have cooled when Anderson's price began rising beyond those original boundaries.

You can be sure some in the organization were skeptical about paying so much to a late bloomer who has hit his peak, meaning he won't get any better.

They'll be sorry, of course, if they let him go.

If ancient Otis Nixon is their idea of a replacement, then they don't have a replacement.

Poor Nixon would get booed out of town in three weeks.

And Kenny Lofton? He's a nice player who had a bad 1997, and his act has worn thin twice. Debatable.

The fact is that you can't replace a player who brings what Anderson does to the table. He plays hard and hurt, setting a professional tone. He plays a brilliant outfield, gets on base, hits for power, hits in the clutch, etc. You know. You have watched.

That the Orioles wouldn't want him back is ridiculous, considering their lack of alternatives.

Maybe the price is beyond what Anderson is worth, but that's what happens in baseball now.

Either you pay up or you sink in the standings.

The Orioles have to make that choice.

In fairness, it's also possible that they did want him back all along, that their inability to sign him was more the result of a miscalculation.

Ten months ago, Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone conceded that there might be an odd man out among Mussina, Cal Ripken and Anderson, the three players whom the club needed to re-sign in 1997.

The Orioles got Ripken and Mussina for less than their market value, which may have convinced them (read: Angelos) that they also could get Anderson for less.

It seemed a possibility -- Anderson repeatedly said he would stay for less -- except that the Orioles sputtered and stalled for so long that Anderson tired of being the last unsigned guy among the big three.

They calculated correctly that he isn't driven by money, but they miscalculated how he would feel once his patience and ego were rubbed wrong.

Anderson, who struggled for years before becoming an All-Star, is proud of the player he has become -- and he wants that recognition.

As time passes, the idea of the greatest form of recognition -- a big contract -- obviously has become more and more appealing to him.

Now that his name is on the open market, drawing a huge offer from Atlanta and maybe another from the Yankees, it's obviously too late.

The Orioles had a window of opportunity to sign him on their terms, a window that was open for more than a year.

Why they didn't sign him is a mystery, a puzzle leading to one of two conclusions. Either they didn't want him as badly as they say, or, well, they just blew it.

And either way, that window of opportunity seems to have closed for good.

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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