With MASN deal done fans banking on windfall

August 07, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

First of all, it's not all about the Yankees. Except that it's always about the Yankees.

It's one of those funny coincidences that the Yankees were in town the day the last (at least it seems) obstacle was cleared to the Orioles reaping that big payoff from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. You could almost hear the cry rolling from Camden Yards across the metropolitan area as soon as the news broke: "Open the vaults! Start slinging the cash! Time to catch the Yankees!"

Easy for us to say. The Orioles, in fact, have been very careful to say everything but that. Please, please, please don't look for a $200 million payroll next season, they're saying, even as they acknowledge that yes, now we can compete a whole lot better than we had before.

It's not about the Yankees, they're saying - not about getting into an arms race with them. Not even the Red Sox do that, or the Mets. Those teams and the cable empires they own, however, happen to be among the models the Orioles can look to for their MASN haul in the upcoming years. It's not unreasonable to envision the O's payroll approaching those, which means they might be looking at the nine-digit club.

Might. "Well, I think once we all get a clear view of what we're able to do, we have to educate everybody on exactly what that is," vice president Jim Duquette said yesterday. "We know we can't go to that [Yankees] payroll; there won't be the revenue to support something like that.

"But you don't have to have that level of payroll in order to compete. Other teams have proven that."

All true. Yet we know, and they know, it's still about the Yankees. If the Orioles can't win the payroll pennant, that's fine, as long as they're in the hunt for the real one determined by wins and losses.

Still, expectations have a way of running away from everybody and taking on a life of their own, especially in this city, the capital of runaway expectations. Just ask Steve McNair.

So know this much: the Orioles won't be layering eight-figure contracts on top of each other until they find the combination that works. They won't shrug off Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui getting hurt and simply plug in Bobby Abreu.

But whatever the equivalent of that is, in their price range? The Orioles know full well that the long-suffering faithful not only expect nothing less, they're demanding it. And are entitled to do so.

They want a big signing. They want their own players to stay, both because those players want to stay and because they're getting paid well to do so (not to mention any specific players soon to be in that boat, like Brian Roberts).

They want that key player added to a possible stretch run. They want a trade to go down without fear of having to actually pay the acquisition to keep him around a year or two later. (For example, just to pull a name out of the air, a Roy Oswalt.)

After all the talk over the years, especially the last two, about how the Orioles are going to survive and thrive once that D.C. mess and cable mess are cleaned up, Orioles fans want action. And because of that funny coincidence of the schedule - which once again brought the Bronx down to the Harbor - they've got to be even more testy about getting action.

Besides the usual sea of "NY" caps yesterday, there was the pre-game scene of interlopers behind the visiting dugout shouting and mugging for a cameraman - a YES Network cameraman. YES is a license for the Yankees to print money, and is what all the copycats, including MASN, want to copy.

Spending helped the Yankees win, winning gave the Yankees leverage to create their own network, the network generates money for the Yankees to spend, and on and on and on - until the team is able to take over another city besides its own.

The retaking of their own ballpark by Orioles fans would surely be a benefit of the new cable deal. (One hardy soul tried to do his part, hurling a Melky Cabrera foul ball back onto the field in the eighth inning.) But the Orioles have to give them a reason to do so first. The franchise can't, and shouldn't, count on a leap of faith based solely on the news of the imminent cash infusion.

It's making people around the organization, including in the clubhouse, smile to themselves, which is a good sign. But, as with every promise made or implied over the past decade, the fan mantra is, "Seeing is believing."

As much as this latest promise is based on, oddly enough, the success of the Nationals, it also will live or die on attendance and ratings, and the Orioles have to give the long-suffering hordes a reason to show up or tune in. So this isn't really a chicken-or-egg thing. This is all on the Orioles' backs.

Last week's MASN deal was the last hurdle. There had better be "green" pastures on the other side, in every sense of the phrase.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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