Agent, Angelos make strides in Mussina talks

`Only matter of time' before deal reached

March 19, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A two-hour meeting yesterday between Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos and the agent for Mike Mussina produced "tangible progress" toward a contract extension that could keep the right-handed ace in Baltimore through 2006.

During his morning negotiation with agent Arn Tellem, Angelos improved his initial five-year, $50 million offer and expressed a desire to finalize an agreement before Opening Day, said a source familiar with the talks. The meeting was productive enough for a club source to predict "it's only a matter of time" before a deal is struck.

Angelos declined interview requests yesterday. Director of media relations Bill Stetka said Angelos classified the meeting as "productive" and "cordial."

"The Orioles have every intention of keeping Mike in Baltimore. That's always been the case," Stetka said, adding that Angelos was encouraged by yesterday's talks.

Tellem arrived in Fort Lauderdale Friday afternoon unsure what direction talks would take but by last night was "encouraged" by the tone set yesterday.

"I think a number of things got accomplished, but it would be premature to say anything further," Tellem said before meeting with Mussina last night.

An apparent willingness by Angelos to add a sixth year to the contract represented one breakthrough while Tellem emphasized that Mussina is not attempting to escalate the industry's salary scale. Mussina has insisted since last summer that he isn't trying to challenge the seven-year, $105 million contract given former Orioles pitcher Kevin Brown by the Los Angelos Dodgers in December 1998. At the same time, Mussina says he will seek market value, something he did not do when signing a three-year, $20.45 million extension in May 1997.

Though the two sides haven't agreed on financial terms, it is believed Mussina would become the highest-paid player in franchise history, eclipsing the $13 million average salary given another Tellem client, right fielder Albert Belle, in November 1998. Any deal also would include significant deferred money.

Mussina has distanced himself from these talks, instead granting Tellem full control. However, the agent's need to relay Angelos' modified proposal to his client suggests significant progress.

"I've told Arn not to come to me with anything until he feels it's close," Mussina said earlier.

Tellem and Angelos will talk again in the owner's box during today's exhibition against Boston. Mussina will start the game against American League Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, whose six-year, $75 million contract is often cited as a yardstick for Mussina's talks.

What Tellem described as a "very constructive, positive meeting" could represent a huge step toward removing a potential distraction to the coming season. Mussina said yesterday that he hasn't been concerned by his contract status but acknowledged that circumstances could change once the season begins and he is approached about the issue in every American League city.

Before hearing from Tellem, Mussina sounded almost resigned to beginning the season as a pending free agent. Told of comments made Friday by Texas Rangers first baseman and Orioles exile Rafael Palmeiro that the Orioles would do well to sign Mussina before Opening Day, Mussina shrugged. He then acknowledged a number of similarities between his own talks and those that ultimately led Palmeiro to leave Baltimore for Texas after the 1998 season.

"At this point it's pretty much the same," Mussina said after yesterday's 3-2 exhibition win over the Minnesota Twins. "I guess there may be a slight difference in our ages [his 31 to Palmeiro's 35]. But otherwise we're pretty much at the same point he was."

Yesterday's events represent a significant difference. Angelos didn't negotiate in earnest with Palmeiro until after the 1998 season. He finally offered the five-year, $50 million deal Palmeiro had sought 10 months before only to be rejected because of the Dallas resident's opportunity to return home.

"I'm just concentrating on pitching. The other stuff will take care of itself either sooner or later," Mussina said. "I'm pretty sure demand for what I do won't go down anytime soon."

"I know this for a fact: if Moose is a free agent he may end up getting $100 million," Palmeiro said. "I think it's in their best interest for the Orioles to get [the extension] done as soon as possible. There's going to be a whole bunch of teams lining up for Mike. And that's for a lot of money. I know Mike wants to stay just like I wanted to stay. But don't give him the opportunity to go out there and let some other big-market teams make it a competitive situation. You don't know what happens then."

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