No-thrills O's stuck with Clark

August 23, 1999|By John Eisenberg

B.B. King sang that "the thrill is gone," but that's true for the Orioles only in their dreams.

Will "The Thrill" Clark not only will be back next season after delivering all of 29 RBIs in 1999, but he might have a place in the everyday lineup, too.

Doubt it? Think there's no way? OK, who else are the Orioles going to put at first base?

Calvin Pickering was supposed to be ready by next season, but he has had his share of problems at Rochester this season and there's no way the Orioles can count on him even to make their major-league roster next spring. His defense, in particular, is a question mark.

Jeff Conine has filled in more than ably for Clark and others all season, proving that Clark was a needless acquisition in the first place, but he's a pending free agent and the Orioles don't envision him as a 162-game player at one position, so he's probably out of the mix.

That leaves ... who? Well, Cal Ripken could end up playing first base if a new, fleet center fielder is added, pushing Brady Anderson to left field, B. J. Surhoff to third and Ripken to first. But who knows if that will happen? And hey, who knows how many games Ripken's back will allow him to play at any position?

That brings us back to Clark, who is a lock to be on the team now after making a decision over the weekend to have season-ending surgery late this week to remove bone chips from his left elbow.

Ordinarily, he'd be at the top of the list of players the Orioles would want to unload after such a disappointing season. He's going to register career lows in many offensive categories. Rafael Palmeiro might end the season with more than 100 RBIs, for crying out loud. Talk about an in-your-face.

No, those 100 RBIs wouldn't have saved the Orioles' season -- with their shaky bullpen and various other flaws, they would have failed with or without Palmeiro's bat -- but no team can afford to give up so much ground at first base, a critical run-producing position.

But if the Orioles want to unload Clark, here's the text of the classified ad they'd have to place: "35-year-old former All-Star first baseman available after totaling 29 RBIs in 251 at-bats in an injury-filled season, then undergoing a third operation on his left elbow. Comes with a $5.5 million contract for 2000."

Let's just say the Orioles' phone probably won't be ringing.

Incredibly, they might have to settle for another season from a first baseman whose days as a run-producer apparently are over.

As if they're not already sufficiently haunted by their past off-season of free-agent signings, all of which are now regretted.

Clark, Delino DeShields and Albert Belle signed a combined 10 years of guaranteed contracts worth $88 million, and the Orioles would trade them all in a heartbeat today if the right takers came along.

As bad as their prior off-season's signings were, at least they weren't stuck beyond one season with the likes of Ozzie Guillen, Norm Charlton and Doug Drabek. There was no long-term damage.

Not so now.

Jerry Hairston is ready to replace DeShields, Clark has been injured and disappointing and the club quickly tired off Belle's antics, but moving any of them is either hard or virtually impossible because of their contracts.

Clark's situation is emblematic of the larger problem that tends to leave the Orioles stuck in such positions.

With so many voices demanding input in personnel decisions -- as opposed to leaving the general manager alone to assemble his vision for the team, as should happen -- the team tends to act deliberately, even haltingly, instead of decisively. Thus, negotiations with Palmeiro lasted just long enough to lose him to the Rangers.

Having failed to implement Plan A, they had to resort hastily to a Plan B, Clark, whose long history of injuries made him a dubious signing even as he was coming off a season in which he had 105 RBIs for the Rangers.

And now the Orioles are stuck with a player who did bring his share of positives to the table -- a .303 average and a relatively solid year in the field -- but remains an overall liability.

If they Orioles are lucky, Pickering will have a strong September after he's called up and go on to establish himself next spring as a major-leaguer whose time has come. But let's face it, the Orioles aren't expecting that to happen.

And it'd be lunacy for them to go out and sign yet another free agent to fill the position. Enough of that kind of thinking.

So they could end up right back where they started at first base next season, with a fading hitter who stopped driving the ball in May.

The Thrill isn't gone, in other words, he's coming back for more. Try to hold down your enthusiasm.

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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