Big Swap, Huge Flop

Orioles: Dealing Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch to the Astros for Glenn Davis in 1991 seemed like a smart move at the time, but it soon evolved into the worst trade in club history.


July 09, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Boston Red Sox star Curt Schilling laughs when he thinks about the morning he found out he was no longer an Oriole. It was a career ago, and he was a naive, 24-year-old kid who really didn't know what had hit him.

"I remember it clearly," Schilling said. "I was sitting at home, eating breakfast with my wife - my girlfriend then - and [then-Orioles general manager] Roland Hemond called. He said, `Kid, I just wanted to let you know that we made a trade today.'

"I thought that was pretty cool, calling me like that. I thought that was just what they did. They called everybody on the team when they made a deal. He said, `We traded for Glenn Davis.' I said, `Cool. OK, I'll see you.' "

Schilling laughs because he wasn't very quick on the uptake. Hemond called, of course, because Schilling was one of three up-and-coming Orioles youngsters who were dealt to the Houston Astros for Davis, the power-hitting first baseman who was supposed to take a developing Orioles team to the next level.

No one in the Orioles' organization can see any humor in the deal now. The club acquired Davis on Jan. 10, 1991, for Schilling, outfielder Steve Finley and pitcher Pete Harnisch in a transaction widely considered the worst trade in franchise history.

The Orioles gave up a huge chunk of their budding youth movement and got back a player who suffered a strange neck injury and never came close to delivering the power numbers he had put up in Houston. Schilling went on to become one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball, and Finley remains a highly productive everyday player. Even Harnisch, whose career was interrupted by a serious bout with depression, had two 16-win seasons and won 95 games after leaving Baltimore.

At first, no negatives

Who knows what the Orioles would have accomplished during the 1990s if that deal had never been made? But it seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.

"Everybody that you ran into in baseball was congratulating us on the deal," said former manager Frank Robinson. "Not one person said anything negative about the deal when we made it. Not one person."

Indeed. The trade was widely applauded as a potential turning point for a team that had overachieved during the "Why Not?" season of 1989, but slipped backward the next year. The addition of Davis figured to shore up an offense that was long on speed but short on power two seasons after the deal that sent Eddie Murray to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"The reports said that he was the guy for us," Robinson said. "He was going to hit home runs, drive in big runs and get big hits for us."

Never mind that Davis had missed more than 60 games in 1990 with a shoulder problem. The guy had big-time power, and the Orioles were one year away from moving into one of baseball's best hitter's parks. What could go wrong?


Davis, who had averaged 29 home runs a year in the spacious Astrodome from 1986 to 1990, hit just 10 in 1991, as a mysterious nerve problem caused the muscles behind his right shoulder to waste away. The official diagnosis was a stretched spinal accessory nerve in his neck, but identifying the problem and solving it were two different things.

He recovered enough to persuade the Orioles to sign him to a two-year extension worth nearly $7 million, but he never regained the power stroke that had made him one of the most feared hitters in the National League. He hit just 13 home runs in 1992 before washing out of the majors the next season.

`I feel I gave it my best'

Davis was released by the Orioles in 1993 after hitting just one home run in 30 games. He attempted a comeback in the Kansas City Royals' minor league system and played two years in Japan, but never returned to the major leagues. He lives with his wife, Theresa, and three children in Georgia, where he realized his dream of opening a pair of nonprofit facilities for troubled youth and also serves as a city councilman.

"I know it [the trade] didn't work out the way the fans in Baltimore wanted it to," Davis said by telephone Monday. "It didn't turn out the way Glenn Davis or the Orioles wanted it to, either. But from the bottom of my heart, I feel I gave it my best. I don't think people really knew everything I did and went through to get back on the field and play. It just didn't work out."

It became the most second-guessed trade of its time, but everybody- scouts, baseball executives, even the media - thought it was a great deal on the day it was made.

"One of the lessons I've learned from that is not to judge player transactions by the media reaction," said Boston Red Sox president Larry Lucchino, who held the same position for the Orioles at the time. "The media deified us. The other important lesson was that you can never, ever have enough pitching, even when you think you have enough."

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