Orioles can shed cheap label and buy better shot at flag by signing Maldonado

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Baltimore Orioles front office has proven to be resourceful, as the recent acquisition of power-hitting first baseman Glenn Davis certainly attests.

The club has even proven to be a little sentimental, as evidenced by the spring-training invitations sent out to Hall of Famer Jim Palmer and fellow Orioles great Mike Flanagan.

But the team needs to do one more thing to satisfy the cynics. The Orioles have to prove that they aren't cheap.

Sure, some would argue that the trade for Davis and the $3.275 million contract he received are proof positive that owner Eli Jacobs is willing to spend what it takes to bring another pennant winner to Baltimore. But that has been disproved by the process of mathematical elimination (Mickey Tettleton, Phil Bradley, Ron Kittle, Joe Price and more) that kept the Orioles' payroll among the lowest in the majors.

There is no crime in being cost-effective, but there is room for one more solid bat in the lineup and one more dependable glove in the outfield. And there is a free agent named Candy Maldonado just begging to play in Baltimore and willing to sign a one-year contract.

It makes too much sense. He wants to come. Manager Frank Robinson repeated last week that he wants him to come. All it would take is money, which the Orioles were not lacking at last count. The payroll still would pale next to those of most of the other clubs, but the Orioles finally would be able to shake the "cheap" charges and might even buy a pennant in the process.

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The Cactus League is under attack again. Florida's Citrus County passed a tourist tax increase Thursday that should clear the way for the Cleveland Indians to move out of their Tucson, Ariz., training facility.

County commissioners voted to double the county's tourist tax from two to four percent to finance an $8.2 million spring-training facility. The Indians reportedly have gotten permission from commissioner Fay Vincent to jump to the Grapefruit League.

That would leave just seven teams out West and threaten the stability of the Cactus League, but officials from the remaining clubs have said that Arizona spring training could remain viable with as few as five or six clubs.

Last year, a Tucson group tried to make a pre-emptive strike against Florida by tempting the Baltimore Orioles to move to Arizona, but the offer was not taken seriously. The Orioles remain without a permanent facility -- even though a tourist tax was passed in Collier County to finance their proposed Naples training site -- but appear determined to stay in Florida.

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Vincent has become the latest baseball commissioner to forecast gloom and doom because of the game's out-of-control salary spiral, but it doesn't seem as if anyone is listening. On the same day he cautioned that baseball is "poised for a catastrophe," the San Diego Padres made Tony Gwynn the third-highest-paid player ($4,083,333 per year) in baseball and the 40th player to sign for an average salary of $3 million or more.

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Don't chisel that salaries list (see accompanying box) in stone just yet. New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden is in the process of negotiating a contract extension that could put him right up there with the Boston Red Sox's Roger Clemens. The Mets offered Gooden three years at $13 million, but he turned it down. That's right, he turned down $4.33 million per year and basically told the Mets to take a hike when they did not meet his price by a Gooden-imposed Friday deadline.

But if anyone seriously believes that he won't listen when the Mets come back with a new offer, I've got some swamp land in Collier County I'd like you to look at. It even comes with an annual visit from the Orioles.

Gooden can make a strong case for getting a contract similar to the four-year extension signed by Clemens. Gooden has a better lifetime record (119-46 to Clemens' 116-51), and he has documented proof that he puts people in the stands.

Mets attendance has dropped 10.3 percent over the past two seasons and figures to drop further with Darryl Strawberry playing in Los Angeles. But over the same period, attendance increased an average of 9.5 percent on the days Gooden pitched.

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Cincinnati Reds manager Lou Piniella knows the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers spent amazing sums to overtake his world championship club, but says he's encouraged by the progress his team has made over the past year. "Last year, they picked us fifth," he said. "This year, they're picking us third, so we've improved two notches."

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Apparently, you're never too old to be a major-league catcher. Ernie Whitt, 38, who reported to Orioles training camp last week, is one of five veteran catchers trying out with new clubs this spring. Bob Boone, 43, has accepted an audition with the Seattle Mariners, Ron Hassey, 38 on Wednesday, has joined the Montreal Expos, Rick Dempsey, 41, is with the Milwaukee Brewers and Gary Carter, 36, reported with the Dodgers.

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The Atlanta Braves remain one of the most pitching-poor organizations in baseball, as evidenced by the 11 non-roster pitchers who have been invited to spring training camp.

"We're trying to address a deficiency at our Triple-A level," general manager John Schuerholz said. "Perhaps one of these guys can make our major-league roster, but it's more of a move to provide ourselves with some depth."

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Schuerholz's "search-and-sign mission" also brought the Braves pitcher Juan Berenguer, who is expected to be the club's bullpen stopper this year.

"I've waited so long for an opportunity as a closer," Berenguer said. "Now that it has come, I'm prepared. I've pitched in a lot of close games with Minnesota, and I know I can handle it."

Berenguer has 14 career saves in 394 games. He got a brief audition as a stopper back in 1981 and met with little success.

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Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser appears to be ahead of schedule his return from reconstructive shoulder surgery. He has been throwing batting practice for the past two weeks and opened spring workouts throwing as hard as many of the healthy pitchers.

"I'm going to start camp like a normal pitcher," said Hershiser, who wasn't expected to return to action until June. "I'm actually ahead of a lot of guys right now. Of course, they'll probably pass me quickly. If I can't keep up, I'll just back off."

His fastball has been clocked at about 80 mph. It has to be in the mid-to-high 80s for him to be effective.

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Open question: If relief pitcher Steve Howe can come back to the major leagues with the commissioner's blessing after breaking the sport's drug ban repeatedly during 1982-87, isn't it fair to argue that Pete Rose should be reinstated after he finishes paying his price to society and straightens out his life?

Higher and higher

How fast are salaries rising? Consider that little more than a year ago, Will Clark was the highest-paid player in baseball at an average of $3.75 million per year, and Dave Stewart was second at $3.5 million. Now, Clark is seventh, and Stewart isn't even in the top 10. Here's how they rank this week:

1. Roger Clemens.. .. ..$5.38 million

2. Jose Canseco.. .. ....$4.7 million

3. Tony Gwynn.. .. .. .$4.083 million

4. Darryl Strawberry.. .$4.05 million

5. Don Mattingly.. .. ..$3.86 million

6. Fred McGriff.. .. ..$3.812 million

7. Will Clark.. .. .. . $3.75 million

Kevin Mitchell.. .. .$3.75 million

9. Dave Winfield.. .. ..$3.75 million

10. Andre Dawson.. .. ...$3.7 million

11. Kelly Gruber.. .. .$3.667 million

12. Dave Stewart.. .. ...$3.5 million

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