Mussina signing nowhere in sight

Inside the Orioles

Optimism on quick deal drifts away as Angelos balks at a sixth year

April 09, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Three weeks have passed since the Orioles' investor group touched down in Fort Lauderdale to see the club get pounded in a meaningless exhibition, to witness that city's groundskeeping crew at its somnambulant worst as a monsoon washed out a sellout featuring Pedro Martinez vs. Mike Mussina, and to hear that majority owner Peter Angelos was going to shake up negotiations with Mussina regarding a contract extension.

As weekends go, it was strikes one, two and three.

After a two-hour meeting between between Angelos and Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, a club official suggested it was "just a matter of time" before the club tied up Mussina. A feeling that Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan might have described as "irrational exuberance" swept the warehouse. Rumors sprouted that a deal was at hand but would be iced until an announcement on Opening Day.

Angelos and his wife, Georgia, vacationed in France for a week.

Tellem returned to California then followed the road to Indianapolis as a means of evaluating future additions to his stable of NBA talent.

Opening Day arrived and Mussina suffered a 4-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians in which he didn't pitch from the stretch until his 27th hitter. And afterward, when he made reference to "a lot going on," his contract "stuff" was included.

When Mussina shut out the media after last Sunday's workout, an assumption was immediately made that he was irritated over the pace of talks. In fact, he was simply trying to establish a routine after being inundated with contract-related questions this spring. But given the climate, every move involving Mussina will be tirelessly scrutinized.

Organizational optimism over a swift resolution now appears misplaced. When Angelos upgraded an initial five-year, $50 million bid by $10 million, club officials believed it signaled a surge in momentum. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift would not rule out an agreement by Opening Day. It never materialized.

Adding $10 million to the package suggested movement. However, the inclusion of $10 million deferred at no interest paints a more cautionary picture.

"Peter controls the pace of negotiations. Mussina controls where it ends. What should that tell you?" asked a source familiar with organizational thinking. His inference was clear: Anyone believing a resolution is close should seek investment advice from the tooth fairy.

Mussina and New York Mets left-hander Mike Hampton are the preeminent pending free-agent pitchers. Mussina's oft-stated preference for Baltimore could be tempered by four-corners negotiating tactics, another subpar season at Camden Yards and the uncertain future of a veteran clubhouse.

Suggestions that the club might stiff-arm pending free-agent catcher Charles Johnson, at least in part because of his agent, Scott Boras, irritate Mussina. Uncertain is what the possible fallout from Mussina's defection would be on a team obviously pointed toward a makeover in 2001.

One salient fact remains: Barring injury, Mussina's value is unshakable. Many scouts believe him an instant 20-game winner in the National League, given its larger ballparks and better defenses.

It is more than coincidence that elite free-agent pitchers have fled the AL in droves recently. No less a figure than St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire told Mussina this spring that he would be seen in the same light as the Greg Maddux of 1998 if he jumped.

Industry analysts believe that given another 18-win season, Mussina could successfully challenge the record seven-year, $105 million contract signed by Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Kevin Brown in December 1998. (Citing affection for Baltimore, Mussina insists that isn't his plan.)

Given that deferred money at no interest constitutes 16.67 percent of his latest bid, Angelos' proposal represents a current-day value of $55 million.

Angelos has told associates he is reluctant to guarantee Mussina a sixth year and is adamantly opposed to using Brown's deal as a benchmark.

Angelos has not signed a player to a contract longer than five years (Scott Erickson, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle and Brady Anderson got five years). The five-year, $65 million contract awarded Belle includes $3 million deferred without interest annually.

Mussina allowed Angelos to negotiate his previous three-year, $20.45 million deal in a vacuum. Nervous about diving into the marketplace and how that might upset his personal life, Mussina vetoed Tellem's advice and was criticized by the union.

Mussina has since solidified his standing as one of the game's elite pitchers as well as one of its most influential intellects.

A follow-up meeting between Angelos and Tellem is likely for this week. Progress is possible. Breakthroughs, however, are no longer expected.

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