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Big swap, huge flop

BaseballBaltimore OriolesHouston AstrosNational LeagueBoston Red Sox

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?

Everything.

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."

The Orioles drafted Mike Mussina, who would be the cornerstone of the rotation until he signed with the New York Yankees after the 2000 season. They still had Ben McDonald and Bob Milacki and the apparent makings of a decent rotation, but imagine what the 1990s might have looked like with a mature Schilling and Harnisch also in the mix.

"It could have been an exceptional core that resulted in great success for the Orioles in the 1990s," said Lucchino, who left the Orioles in 1993 and joined the group that bought the San Diego Padres. "Sure, it has come back to my mind from time to time. It has stuck with me.

"I succeeded in bringing Finley back to the Padres and Schilling to the Red Sox. I only wish I could have brought Harnisch back to one of my teams."

Schilling wasn't an instant success after the deal. He didn't establish himself as a premier pitcher until the Astros traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jason Grimsley, but it should have been no surprise to anyone in the Orioles' organization when he blossomed in Philadelphia.

Finley was a steady, productive performer for the Astros from 1991 to 1994, but he didn't emerge as a complete hitter until after he was traded to the Padres in a 12-player deal in December 1994. He broke through with 30 home runs in 1996 and had his most productive season in 1999 after signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks, batting .264 with 34 homers and 103 RBIs. He's still going strong, batting .291 with 21 homers for the struggling D'backs, and has been mentioned in midseason trade speculation.

Though he enjoyed his two seasons in Baltimore, Finley welcomed the chance to go from a crowded outfield to a guaranteed starting job in Houston.

"[The Astros] were rebuilding, and they wanted me to be their center fielder every day, no matter what," Finley said. "I knew it was going to be a better opportunity. At that point, I liked the idea of going to the National League. And once I was there for a couple of years, I fell in love with the National League."

Robinson was in favor of the Davis trade, but not the final package of players the Orioles sent to Houston.

While others focused on the loss of Finley and Harnisch, both of whom were more established players, he told reporters at the time it would be Schilling they would miss the most.

"I fought them on it," Robinson said. "I thought we paid too much. I didn't want to include Schilling. They [originally] wanted five pitchers off our 25-man roster. We said, 'No way.'

"Numbers aren't the only measure of talent. I just liked his makeup. He was a bulldog. He wanted the ball even as a kid. He had a great arm. He just hadn't harnessed it at that time. He's the only one ... the one I said, 'Do not include him in the deal.' "

The Orioles also were high on Finley, but he was one of three natural center fielders on the roster.

"We knew he was going to be a good one, but we had [Mike] Devereaux, Finley and [Brady] Anderson," Robinson said. "That would have been a good outfield if you had kept it together. Nothing fell in the outfield in 1989."

Schilling feels the same way about the pitching staff.

"I look back at that team, with Ben [McDonald], me, Petey and Mussina a little after that," Schilling said. "If you think about it ... but all trades are like that."

Power outage

Obviously, it's easy to second-guess the deal now, but the Orioles were desperate to take a step forward after failing to deliver a suitable encore to the magical 1989 campaign.

"They needed power," said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who attempted a comeback in 1991. "They needed a guy in the lineup who was going to make a difference. How do you know that he's going to have a neurological problem with his neck? Obviously, based on the results, it was not a particularly good trade."

Davis went from 34 home runs in 1989 to 22 in his final season with the Astros, but the shoulder injury that cost him nearly 70 games that year did not raise a red flag for the Orioles. It is still a matter of debate whether that injury was connected to the nerve problem that limited him to 49 games in 1991.

"It was a very different guy who showed up here," said current Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan, who returned from the Toronto Blue Jays to pitch for the team that year. "They [Orioles front-office officials] did a good job. The perception in the industry was, 'How can this guy be available?' People thought he'd hit 40 or 50 [homers] for us, but the perception just didn't match the reality."

Davis worked hard to get healthy, but he never resembled the imposing slugger who anchored the Astros' lineup in the late 1980s. His three years in Baltimore were filled with frustration for him and the club, which came to resent his seemingly philosophical acceptance of the mysterious injury.

If that was the impression he projected, he says now it couldn't be further from the reality of the situation.

He sought numerous medical opinions and underwent a variety of treatments to overcome the nerve disorder. Even now, after parlaying the big money he made in baseball into a successful business career and more than a decade of important charitable work, Davis wonders what might have been.

Money put to good use

"I look at it from both sides," he said. "I do look at what we've been able to accomplish, but I also look at what I could have done [on the field]. That injury changed the course of my career. I look back at the 1997 season when they juiced up the ball and think of what I might have been able to do."

Davis proved he was healthy with a huge Triple-A season in 1994, but could never persuade another team to put him on its major league roster. He said he was blackballed because of the perceptions that developed about him during his difficult stay in Baltimore, but he moved ahead with his life and reflects on it all now without rancor.

"You can't let adversity change you," he said.

Davis has long had a soft spot in his heart for at-risk kids because he was once one of them. There is a third youth home in the works.

The Orioles may look back regretfully at the three promising young players that they gave up in the ill-fated Davis deal, but they can afford to be philosophical about the $10 million or so that Davis earned during the three years he was under contract to the Orioles.

It didn't go to waste.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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