Rochester can relax, exhibition will go on

Inside the Orioles

Wings' `most important day' survives clubhouse unrest

June 27, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

It's 6: 50 a.m. on Thursday. Welcome to your nightmare, Dan Mason.

The Rochester Red Wings' fourth-year general manager awoke to the screech of a local broadcast type wondering what his reaction was to the possible cancellation of an exhibition against the Orioles. Mason had no reaction. He was still asleep and no one in Baltimore had spoken to him about the issue.

"It caused a little stir," Mason said. "There were a lot of anxious people. We hadn't heard anything different about the Orioles not coming. We had all the faith in the world that they would be coming."

The Orioles will be going to Rochester, N.Y., tomorrow, albeit to play a seven-inning exhibition instead of a grown-up nine innings against their Triple-A affiliate. Frontier Field will be overflowing and the Orioles insist they expect everyone to attend and to be on their best behavior. Yet as recently as Friday there were rumblings that a number of players would miss the game regardless of how much the team threatened to fine them.

What first became a visible issue through Albert Belle's posted boycott petition Tuesday escalated into a series of talks involving players, union officials, team executives and Major League Baseball. A hastily arranged compromise guaranteed players won't have to play an exhibition next season in return for playing an abridged game on Monday.

At 12: 15 p.m. on Thursday, with a media crush (by Rochester standards, anyway) encamped outside the Red Wings' front office, Orioles general manager Frank Wren phoned Mason with assurances there would be a game.

"This is by far the most important day of the season for these people," said Mason, still audibly relieved days after Thursday's wake-up call. "There aren't many opportunities for people in Rochester to see major-league players up close. This is a lot cozier ballpark than our fans could ever travel to to see a major-league game. Any time you have one of the most popular athletes in the world come to your stadium, it's a big deal."

What was initially supposed to be a routine goodwill tour has turned into a media event, a fact that has left the club understandably nervous. According to a club source, at least two players have inquired about missing the exhibition, something Wren discounted Thursday night.

The Red Wings anticipate receipts of more than $100,000 from the game, making it their most profitable day of the season. Two years ago, Brady Anderson delighted fans by participating in the home run contest while Cal Ripken sat in the stands for 90 minutes signing autographs. Of course, any goodwill was overshadowed by the absence of Roberto Alomar, his subsequent fining and the ensuing flak over the issue ultimately leading to Davey Johnson's resignation.

For any minor-league city, especially one proud of its 39-year association with a single organization, days like Monday are huge. Faced with the potential embarrassment and financial fallout of a cancellation, Mason gladly accepted the Orioles' terms.

"It wasn't a contract or anything like that," Mason said. "They asked if they would play seven or nine innings. We were happy to accommodate them."

Wren called the whole matter "a harmless misunderstanding until Tuesday." It was then that an itinerary for the upcoming road trip was placed on players' chairs. What is typically a cursory glance became a major issue when a charter flight and 6: 15 p.m. game time were noticed. Belle quickly constructed his petition. Scott Erickson signed on. Chief operating officer Joe Foss walked through the clubhouse, noticed the petition and discussed it with manager Ray Miller.

Anderson removed the sign before the game without being asked and later chuckled at the perception that club executives had taken control of the issue, saying, "It wasn't that way at all."

While the Orioles hoped a way out of the game could be found, Belle's cry for publicity wasn't endorsed. "That wasn't the way the issue should've been handled," Anderson said. "There was a chance it could have been handled without this much attention."

Belle was only half-serious about the petition, according to teammates and his Web site. However, its visibility left a different impression with those unable to discuss it with the player.

On Wednesday, player representative Mike Mussina, B. J. Surhoff and Anderson met with Foss and Wren. Both sides agreed that an ugly confrontation could be avoided. "This isn't a time bomb," said Foss. But the players, who already had discussed the issue with union officials, were adamant that the club make some sort of concession; hence, the pledge for an exhibition-free 2000 season.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.