No reason for rancor in Palmeiro exit

March 21, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- This need not end badly, need not turn ugly. Rafael Palmeiro is likely to be the next big Orioles name to depart, but his exit need not be as messy as Jon Miller's or Davey Johnson's.

Palmeiro is toning down his rhetoric and vowing to produce another big season. The Orioles are hoping to replace him with a younger, cheaper Ryan Minor. It's not a divorce that's looming; it's a corporate breakup.

No one should get too emotional; not Palmeiro, not the Orioles, not even their fans, who surely would be disappointed by the loss of one of the most productive hitters in club history.

All anyone can ask is that Palmeiro turn his last waltz into a triumphant October jig, and that's exactly what the 33-year-old first baseman is planning.

Yes, he's coming off a horrendous postseason. But those who fear that Palmeiro might crack under the strain of pending free agency should consider his performance in 1993, the last time he was in this position.

Palmeiro emerged as a premier slugger with Texas that season, batting .295 with 37 homers and 105 RBIs, and also scoring 124 runs, a total that remains his career-high.

"People that are saying that, I don't think they know me that well. They can't," Palmeiro said yesterday. "I'm sensitive to some things. But I know I'm strong enough to play through it. I've done it before."

Assistant general manager Kevin Malone, manager Ray Miller, center fielder Brady Anderson -- they're all in agreement, all expecting Palmeiro to produce his usual monster numbers.

"You say his last free-agent year, he had a big year. But he has a big year every single year," Anderson said. "When was the last time he didn't have a big year? He's really too good to even have an off-year."

Still, the Orioles reportedly were willing to trade Palmeiro for Boston's Mo Vaughn, and also might have included Jeffrey Hammonds in the deal, according to Peter Gammons of the Boston Globe and ESPN.

The Red Sox, however, didn't want to send Vaughn to an AL East rival and watch him turn into this year's Roger Clemens. Besides, they now appear close to signing Vaughn, leaving Palmeiro to play out his final year in Baltimore.

The Orioles won't exactly suffer.

Palmeiro has only 11 fewer RBIs than Vaughn in the past five seasons (537 to Vaughn's 548). And his dismal performance in last year's American League Championship Series was no worse than Vaughn's 0-for-14 showing in the '95 Division Series.

He doesn't have a weight problem. His team hasn't asked him to undergo alcohol counseling. And if he's a tad selfish, well, name a great hitter who isn't -- or a great Oriole, for that matter.

For now, Palmeiro is saying all the right things, focusing on winning a World Series, even softening his inflammatory remarks from two months ago, stating he would sign a contract below market value to remain an Oriole.

"To stay in Baltimore, stay with these guys, who wouldn't, man?" Palmeiro said, surveying the clubhouse before hitting a home run in yesterday's 3-2 exhibition loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The problem is, Palmeiro wants to sign a contract extension before Opening Day, and warns that his price could rise if he enters the free-agent market after the season is over.

Sound familiar?

It is exactly the same position Anderson, Cal Ripken and Mike Mussina held a year ago.

Initially, Palmeiro was less political, saying he would not "do a Brady." Club officials jumped him for that potentially divisive remark, and Palmeiro quickly got back with the program.

"I want to stay," he repeated yesterday. "I told Peter [Angelos]. I told everyone. They may have different feelings, I don't know."

May have? Club officials apparently would love Minor to speed through Double-A and Triple-A this season, then take over at first base or third in 1999, with Cal Ripken playing the other corner infield spot.

Palmeiro, 33, has given the Orioles four magnificent seasons, but club officials can't be faulted for trying to balance their payroll. Heck, even Palmeiro thinks they're wise to prepare for his possible departure.

"From an organization standpoint, I think that's a smart move," Palmeiro said. "They have to prepare for the future.

"I would like to be the first baseman the rest of my career here. I'd like to see [Minor] in the big leagues. But I would rather be teammates with him."

All right, but wouldn't he love to go back home to Texas, rejoin the Rangers and stick it to his old rival, Will Clark? That's the suspicion throughout baseball, but Palmeiro insisted that such speculation is premature.

"At this point, I'm not even concerned with that," Palmeiro said. "Who knows what's going to be in free agency? It's so crazy. You never know what teams will come after you."

His price? Well, the Red Sox are expected to give Vaughn $10 million per season. The Orioles don't want any position player to exceed Ripken's $6.3 million average, but that policy is unrealistic, and they know it.

Palmeiro wants a five-year deal, and he wants it from the Orioles -- "I feel I've held my end of the bargain," he said. "I think I've done more than they expected."

But in the end, the Orioles might not even make him a serious offer; they've got 12 other free agents to consider, including second baseman Roberto Alomar.

Whatever happens, the Orioles need not attack him, the way they attacked Miller and Johnson. And Palmeiro need not erupt, the way he did after the Rangers spurned him for Clark.

He has been the best free-agent acquisition in club history, a remarkably productive player for four seasons, and, when all is said and done, probably a fifth, too.

If he leaves, it's business, nothing more, nothing less.

Business, that's all.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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