Competition rocketing past Orioles, as usual

May 08, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

Two days after the Orioles announced that promising young pitcher Adam Loewen would be lost for about three months with a stress fracture in his pitching elbow, the New York Yankees announced Sunday the signing of Roger Clemens to a prorated $28 million contract.

These two events are absolutely unrelated, of course, except for the effect that each will have on the pecking order in the American League East. The Orioles probably are doomed to another fourth-place finish (or worse), and the Yankees will, as always, recover from their slow start to compete for another division title.

I am sorry to inform you that this is how it is and likely will be for a long, long time. The Yankees have virtually unlimited spending power, and the Orioles, even with their new regional sports network, can only hope to narrow the huge economic gap that separates them from their chief AL East rivals.

The situation is complicated by a number of other factors, including a decade of mismanagement and a string of losing seasons that have made Baltimore a less-than-attractive free-agent destination, but the basic problem is economic.

The Yankees and Boston Red Sox will always have more money, so the only hope is that they will somehow screw things up so badly that the Orioles -- through savvy front office maneuvering and great player development -- will regain the high ground they held for so long in the 1960s and '70s.

Let's review:

The Red Sox spent $51 million just for the rights to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka during the offseason, then spent an additional $52 million to sign him.

The Yankees just gave the 44-year-old Clemens about $1 million per start to pitch the last four months of the season.

The Orioles lost another one of their top pitchers and replaced him with a nice young man named Brian Burres.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting that the Orioles should have found a way to persuade Clemens to come to Baltimore. That was never in the realm of possibility. What I am suggesting is that -- barring some unforeseeable event like the imposition of an NFL-style salary cap -- this economic dynamic and the competitive status quo that it has created is not going to change.

Nor am I saying the Orioles will never win, just that they will always be at a significant economic and competitive disadvantage unless there is some huge population shift away from the urban Northeast.

Sure, there will be those seasons when the Orioles get off to a great start and the Yankees or Red Sox stumble out of the gate. There might even be a year (probably well down the road) when the Orioles race wire-to-wire again the way they did in 1997. But I'm fairly sure there will never be a time when the Orioles will be in a position to hand a blank check to one of the greatest players in the game to bail them out of a short-term crisis.

The baseball traditionalist in me thinks there's something wrong with that picture anyway. I think the Houston Astros set a terrible precedent by letting Clemens come and go as he pleased during the seasons he pitched for them. I think the Yankees have added to the perception that Clemens is bigger than the game, which will only spawn more baseball divas like him.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Major League Baseball to steamroller the players union for a new system that would prevent that sort of thing, because both sides in baseball's collective bargaining relationship seem fairly satisfied with the direction the game is going.

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network eventually should generate sufficient revenue to field respectable teams in Baltimore and Washington, but this isn't just about payroll. It's about good top-to-bottom organizational strategy, reconnecting with local fans and rebuilding the national image of the club.

The Yankees don't have to worry about any of that. Neither do the Red Sox. The Orioles will need several consecutive years of solid performances on the field just to shake the perception among top free agents that Baltimore is a baseball wasteland. That's kind of a Catch-22, since they'll need to compete for the best free-agent players to get to that point.

Meanwhile, the Yankees sign one of the best pitchers in the history of the game for a record price and Orioles fans pray this contract will be the straw that finally breaks the back of the pinstriped dynasty.

Except that the Yankees have been doing this kind of thing for almost 90 years now and there still is no end in sight.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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