O's stick to path as rivals come unglued

January 03, 2003|By Laura Vecsey

EVER SINCE it was clear that Orioles owner Peter Angelos was going to change his administration, Mike Flanagan was billed as a man with a vision for how Baltimore could return to baseball glory.

That always sounded so good.

Yesterday during a lunch-time gab session in his new Camden Yards office, it seemed equally reassuring to find that Flanagan is also a man with a sense of humor.

You won't catch this American League East team leader throwing chairs, breaking windows or hurling banner-headline insults at "the Evil Empire" as they're doing in New York and Boston.

"I think it's great for baseball. Let them slug it out up there," said Flanagan, laughing.

In case you missed it, the Yankees and Red Sox are turning the Hot Stove League into Dante's Inferno, circa 2003.

The power brokers up north have turned this offseason into The Mother of All Free-Agent Wars. They've spewed enough venom to fill the back pages of the New York Post and Boston Herald for the next 100 years, and we hardly think George Steinbrenner and Boston CEO Larry Lucchino are done.

Sox to Boss: You're evil.

Boss to Sox: You're toast.

The centerpiece of all this fussing is, of course, Steinbrenner's international shopping spree, closing multi-year, multi-million dollar deals for Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui and Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras.

The Yankees now have a payroll exceeding $140 million - so much for the drag on payrolls thanks to the luxury tax. The Yankees also have a starting rotation deep enough to fill the New York Jets' depth chart, with Roger Clemens at right guard - for many deferred dollars.

Word now has it that The Boss wants to nab ace pitcher Bartolo Colon from the Expos, only to further stick it to the Red Sox.

Which, of course, means the Yankees are also sticking it to the Orioles, because they have the pleasure of playing the Yankees 19 times, likewise the Red Sox, who didn't get Contreras and, boy, are they peeved, but at least they stole reliever Ramiro Mendoza from the Evil Empire.

If you think this is the stuff to give the Orioles a withering inferiority complex, don't worry. It's good to know that Flanagan refuses to quiver at the northerners' preposterous spending. He also refuses to lambaste his AL East rivals for upping the ante beyond reason.

"The AL East is a tough division. If you were in the Central, you could add a player or two and move from third place to first. In this division, with the Yankees and Boston, it's a spending game up there," Flanagan said.

"But we're planning for the long haul, though. We see problems up there in terms of future payroll and dried-up minor- league systems."

In other words: Happy New Year, Baltimore.

Yesterday, Flanagan and fellow de facto general manager Jim Beattie reached agreement with veteran pitcher Omar Daal on a two-year deal, giving the Orioles their first left-handed starter since Jimmy Key.

Quick quiz: How many general managers have there been in Baltimore since Key was on the mound here?

Daal did not defect from Cuba and he is not going for career win No. 300, as Clemens will do with the Yankees this season. The hoopla will be a lot less resounding around this signing, considering the climate the Yankees have whipped up.

However, Daal is not a move to be overlooked. The 10-year veteran is a rock-solid addition to the Orioles' staff. He had one horrific season in 2000, shuttling between Arizona and Philadelphia and posting a surreal, 19-loss season. He has since rebounded nicely, returning to form as an innings eater (180 to 200 easy) whose curve, change and slider will make him the No. 2 starter behind Sidney Ponson - unless the Orioles trade Ponson. Or someone.

No, the fun around here isn't going to stop with Ivan Rodriguez .

(Chances are Pudge will come to his senses and realize the Orioles really want him and are willing to pay if he produces, so let's just make the deal and stop making preposterous threats about playing in Japan.)

There has been the requisite restlessness in Birdland this winter for Orioles news. It's been all of one month since Angelos named Flanagan and Beattie as the tag-team replacement for former vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, but talk-radio callers will make you think that Rome was built in a day.

That means there's great anticipation for Flanagan and Beattie to give Baltimore a New Year's gift - a blockbuster deal to set a tone for the brave, new direction.

It could happen, but the willingness of Flanagan and Beattie to be patient is a good sign.

"We're not going to emotionally bid on players. And if one of us gets a knee-jerk reaction and wants to make a deal, the other one is here to bring another perspective," Flanagan said.

In other words, the long-term plan is to rebuild the farm system, re-establish lines of communication within the entire organization and empower everyone to do his job.

"We're in this for the long haul," Flanagan said.

But from where he sat in his new office yesterday, Flanagan had a twinkle in eye. The former pitcher scanned the huge bulletin boards that hold the names of every player on every team in the major leagues.

Among those names are a handful of young stars Flanagan said he and Beattie are willing to trade for and/or pay to come and be the centerpieces of the new Orioles.

"But I can't tell you now," he said, worried that disclosure might kill any deal in the works.

"We're not constrained by payroll. We can spend money. But we're going to make smart deals. Maybe things will heat up later today," he said.

It wasn't the blockbuster, mud-slinging news spewing out of New York and Boston these days, but at least it was an interesting tease.

Once upon a time, that used to be half the fun of Hot Stove season.

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