With arbitration in season, O's set to face Hairston

Hearing scheduled today

cases for Ponson, Mora also pending in next week

Baseball

February 12, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Unless a deal is struck beforehand, Jerry Hairston will sit in a Florida hotel conference room today, listening to Orioles officials criticize his baseball abilities before a panel of three independent arbitrators.

Never mind that the Orioles expect big things from Hairston this season. This is their one chance to argue the case for paying him less money.

Maybe feelings will get hurt, maybe not. It's all part of baseball's salary arbitration process.

With Hairston, Sidney Ponson and Melvin Mora all scheduled to have arbitration hearings in the next week, the Orioles were still on a collision course with three prominent players last night. And this is one area where the Orioles almost never lose.

Jim Beattie isn't concerned. He spent six years as the Montreal Expos' general manager before coming to the Orioles as executive vice president for baseball operations in December. He went through this process with several Montreal players.

"It's never concerned me," Beattie said. "Any player that's a professional has to understand it's part of the game. I did it with [Expos pitcher] Javier Vazquez, I sat in the room, and that's part of the game.

"Major League Baseball wants to put this in as a part of the game, and the players have to understand that we use a fair system. If players get upset about it, there's really not much they can do. They're still going to go out and try their hardest."

Orioles officials and the agents for these three players have been preparing their cases for weeks. In January, each side submitted a salary figure to Major League Baseball, and these hearings were scheduled in case agreements could not be reached.

The Orioles settled with B.J. Ryan and Gary Matthews last month.

In Hairston's case, he filed at $1.8 million, and the Orioles filed at $1.15 million. Hairston's agent, Casey Close, will have one hour to present his case to the panel today in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Orioles, led by general counsel Russell Smouse, will present their case for an hour.

Statistics play a big part, as comparisons are drawn to similar players. For that hour, like it or not, teams pick apart a player's performance and try to devalue him before the panel.

Each side has a half hour for rebuttal, and then the panel will announce its decision - picking $1.8 million or $1.15 million - the following day.

Under Smouse, the Orioles are 7-1 in arbitration cases that have gone to a hearing. Their one loss in that span came to Ben McDonald in 1995, and they have won five in a row.

Of the Orioles' three pending cases, Ponson offers the most intrigue. He filed at $4.75 million, the club filed at $3.9 million, and there are few signs the sides will settle before his hearing Tuesday of next week.

Ponson, who signed with the Orioles in 1993, is eligible for free agency at season's end, and any bitter feelings from an arbitration hearing could affect his decision on whether to stay - assuming the club tries to keep him.

"Good agents will certainly help players understand this should be part of the process," Beattie said. "If they let personal feelings get involved in this part of it, sometimes that makes it a little tougher. But sometimes that motivates them more, and in the end, you get a more motivated player."

Ponson's agent, Barry Praver, has a different view.

"It's difficult to generalize the effect arbitration has on players," he said. "You really need to take each player on a case-by-case basis to understand the impact and ramifications that arbitration can have on him."

Ponson went 7-9 with a 4.09 ERA last season. He had the fourth-worst run support (4.09 runs per nine innings) in the American League. Will a contentious arbitration hearing make him more determined?

"Regardless of what happens on Feb. 18, I do not believe that Sidney can be any more motivated than he normally would be," Praver said. "To understand Sidney, you have to understand that he approaches this game with a warrior-type mentality."

But could sentiments from this hearing affect his decision to stay at season's end? "It would be premature to comment at this point," Praver said.

NOTES: Mora filed at $2 million, the Orioles at $1.425 million. His hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday. ... The club is still hopeful it can sign free-agent outfielder B.J. Surhoff to a minor-league contract that will pay him about $1 million if he makes the major-league club.

Orioles dates

Tomorrow: Pitchers, catchers report to camp

Feb. 27: Exhibition opener, vs. Florida at Jupiter, Fla., 1:05 p.m.

March 31: Opening Day, vs. Cleveland at Camden Yards, 3:05 p.m.

Tomorrow in The Sun: Orioles spring training preview

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