The pitch that won over Ryan

Toronto closed the deal with five years and $47 million. But the O's lost him when stalled preseason contract talks were `tough to swallow.'

Baseball

April 09, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

DUNEDIN, FLA. — DUNEDIN, Fla.-- --In the heat of contract negotiations last November, B.J. Ryan went golfing.

He was "just beating it around" with his dad and a buddy one afternoon when he hit a one-hopper off the tee that disappeared.

The first hole-in-one of an avid golfer's life is tough to top.

Days later, Ryan did.

He signed a five-year, $47 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays, making the former Orioles closer and self-proclaimed country boy the owner of the richest reliever's contract in the history of baseball.

"Both were kind of right there together," Ryan said of the ace and the historic deal. "I had a good run."

A good run, indeed.

More than four months later, the 6-foot-6 left-hander is embarking on perhaps the biggest challenge of his eight-year big league career. He is now the man in the Blue Jays' bullpen, and he must show the hefty investment was prudent.

"You've worked hard, you got your shot and now it is time to prove that you can do it," Ryan said. "To prove that you are worth it."

A year ago, Ryan was heading into his first year as a full-time closer. He was also beginning what would be the end of his career with the Orioles, the team for which he had pitched in all but one of his games in the big leagues.

Ryan says he wanted to remain an Oriole long-term. And the Orioles say they wanted to keep him. A deal never got done, even though the two sides weren't far apart. The Orioles reportedly offered three years worth just less than $10 million - something they believed was fair for a player just settling into the closer's role.

"I would definitely say we felt we were making good-faith offers in where we were with his situation," club executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "But players earn the right in baseball to test the free-agent market."

Ryan's agent countered with three years worth around $14 million to $15 million - which, in retrospect, would have been a significant bargain in baseball terms. The negotiations stalled. And Ryan's self-imposed Opening Day deadline passed.

"It was tough to swallow," Ryan said. "You spend a lot of time in an organization and you have a certain amount of loyalty and you hope they have that certain amount of loyalty to you. But it's a double-edged sword and it has to go both ways.

"Once you see that they kind of didn't move and I kind of didn't move, [then] you kind of be stubborn and set in your ways and you try to prove to them what you can do."

What irked Ryan was that the Orioles already had named him closer, but were offering him solid setup-man money.

"I didn't want to debut for it. I thought I had done enough for that organization to where they had enough faith in me, where they thought I could do it," Ryan said. "And I didn't want to debut and then have them come to me at the All-Star break and say, `Hey, we're ready to do something now.'"

Flanagan said he had hoped to talk with Ryan midseason last year, but it was clear he wasn't reopening negotiations. Then this winter Toronto overwhelmed the market with its offer.

"I was certainly surprised by the dollar amount," Flanagan said. "When you put together an offer, you're working off existing contracts. Our [offer] was in line with other closer contracts."

Ryan made the most of 2005, saving 36 games in 41 chances while posting a 2.43 ERA and making his first trip to the All-Star Game.

A team in disarray

It was a glorious personal ride. But it was Ryan's most difficult season as a member of a team. The Orioles' year started promising with a two-month stint in first place before it was derailed by key injuries, Rafael Palmeiro's steroid suspension, manager Lee Mazzilli's firing and pitcher Sidney Ponson's arrest on charges of driving under the influence.

"It started out so hot and then it just crashed and burned in a month. ... " Ryan said. "It was unbelievable. Once it started snowballing, there was nothing you could do. You tried to play hard and bust your butt and you got guys that were trying to do too much too fast. We were trying to win four games out of one."

The toughest part, he said, was watching pitcher Erik Bedard and catcher Javy Lopez get injured within days of each other in late May, and then not seeing the front office make a trade or two to bring in reinforcements.

"You hate to go back and second-guess because you never want to be second-guessed as a pitcher, but I honestly thought we were going to make a [personnel] move," Ryan said. "I thought something might happen."

When it didn't, the team's collective psyche took a hit, and the negatives followed rapidly.

Perhaps none struck Ryan more personally than when Ponson was arrested for his second DUI charge in a year - and the Orioles subsequently released him.

"[Ponson] had problems and he had troubles, but I liked him and I didn't want to see it go down like that," Ryan said. "I had a lot of respect for that guy and he didn't always make the right decisions, but he would do anything for his teammates, which in my book, that goes a long way."

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