DALLAS - Free-agent pitcher Mike Hampton is poised to become the richest player in baseball history, but that distinction - like the veteran left-hander himself - may come at a big price.
The Colorado Rockies reportedly are close to completing an eight-year, $121 million deal that would put Hampton at the head of their vastly upgraded starting rotation. The only question is whether his reputation as one of the game's most effective starters would disappear into thin air.
Hampton helped lead the New York Mets to the World Series and also was pursued by the St. Louis Cardinals - the other team that reached the National League Championship Series this year - but to get the highest offer he will have to pitch at baseball's highest altitude.
Hitter-friendly Coors Field has proven to be a house of horrors for quality pitchers, that fact best illustrated by the struggles of high-priced free agent Darryl Kile in 1998 and '99.
But that didn't dissuade Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd from signing former Arundel High star Denny Neagle to a five-year, $51.5 million contract earlier this week, or breaking the bank to lure Hampton to Denver.
Though Rockies officials insisted last night that the deal had not been completed - the holdup is believed to be the physical examination, thought to be formality - the tentative contract was the talk of the winter meetings at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel.
"It's not a done deal," said Rockies public relations director Jay Alves. "Serious negotiations are taking place, but it looks good."
It was official enough to persuade Mets general manager Steve Phillips to hold a news conference and explain why his club had come up short in its attempt to keep Hampton in New York.
"I have talked to [agent] Mark Rogers and he told me they have a decision," Phillips said. `They have a deal with a club and it's not us. He told me which team, but I don't think that's for me to say."
When the contract is official, it will surpass the record guarantee of $116 million that the Cincinnati Reds gave Ken Griffey in February and easily surpass the record guarantee for a pitcher - Kevin Brown's seven-year, $105 million contract. It falls just short of the largest total contract in professional sports - the six-year, $126 million contract of NBA star Kevin Garnett.
The average annual salary of $15.125 million would make Hampton the first- or second-highest paid pitcher in baseball, depending on the breakdown of the $30.9 million extension recently signed by future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens.
The deal, the longest contract for a pitcher since Wayne Garland left the Orioles to sign a 10-year deal with the Cleveland Indians in 1977, calls for a $20 million signing bonus, $1 million payable to charity and $19 million deferred without interest until after the contract expires. The remaining money will be paid in 10 yearly installments of $1.9 million, the money accruing 3 percent interest.
The Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs also were involved in the bidding and each of the other teams is believed to have offered a package worth at least $100 million.
"I don't know what all the offers were," Phillips said. "His agent said it didn't come down to the last dollar. It was close enough to come down to some other issues - having a chance to win and quality of life for his family."
If that's true, the choice of the Rockies is a curious one, since the club has been in a near-constant state of reconstruction for the past several years. They had some hopeful moments during the 2000 season, but faded late to finish fourth in the tough National League West.
Phillips acknowledged that he faced an uphill fight trying to convince Hampton to stay in New York, even after the Mets parlayed a wild-card playoff berth into a crosstown World Series matchup against the rival Yankees.
"I think everybody prioritizes a little differently," Phillips said. "The word was that New York was not his favorite place. I was hoping that the winning part would be compelling enough for us to prevail."
The deal would give the Rockies four left-handed starting pitchers - Hampton, Neagle, Brian Bohanon and Ron Villone - in an industry that puts a tremendous premium on them. The last team to have as many as four was the 1981 New York Yankees team that reached the World Series.
The winter meetings got off to their typical slow start, largely because of the free-agent logjam that has forced most teams to take a wait-and-see attitude to other personnel decisions. That logjam may loosen slightly with the Hampton signing, but trading activity figures to be inhibited until superstar Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez decide where they are going to play.
In another signing yesterday, the Texas Rangers added veteran first baseman Andres Galarraga to a one-year contract worth $6 million and an option for 2002. Galarraga, who was not offered salary arbitration by Atlanta, hit .302 with 28 homers and 100 RBIs last season for the Braves after missing all of 1999 because of a cancerous tumor in his back.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.