Twins get back what Orioles didn't put out


The Minnesota Twins play in a smaller television market than the Orioles and last year drew nearly 700,000 fewer fans. But rather than fret over their inability to compete in baseball's big-money era, they put together a team capable of winning 15 straight games and leading the mighty AL West.

On the field, their return to prominence is a lesson for those who dismiss free-agent signings as inevitably destructive. Off the field, it serves as proof that the game's haves and have-nots are defined not only by the size of their TV markets, but also by the size of their owners' debt.

That wasn't the reason the Twins swept the Orioles in three straight one-run games last week at the Metrodome, and it won't directly affect the series in Baltimore starting tonight. Still, it's no coincidence these clubs are headed in opposite directions.

The Twins spend their money wisely.

The Orioles hardly spend it at all.

Both clubs traditionally disdain free agents, but the 1990 market included a unique group -- players granted "new looks" as part of the collusion settlement. Their signings did not result in the loss of draft picks, so they were attractive for clubs that normally build through their farm systems.

The Orioles fit that description, but they shunned the "new-look" players. The Twins lost two of their own -- third baseman Gary Gaetti and reliever Juan Berenguer -- then turned around and signed two others, outfielder Chili Davis and workhorse starter Jack Morris.

General manager Andy MacPhail said it cost them more money: Gaetti and Berenguer will earn a combined $3.7 million this season, Davis and Morris a combined $4.7 million. But while most big-name free agents are struggling, Davis and Morris are playing critical roles for the Twins, helping spark the longest winning streak in the majors since 1977.

Davis, 31, signed a one-year, $1.9 million contract with a club option for next season. He already has hit more homers (14) than he did last year for California (12). His club-high 41 RBIs include five game-winners during the streak. Until yesterday, he was batting over .300.

Morris, 36, spurned a three-year, $9.3 million offer from Detroit to return to his native Minnesota, accepting less guaranteed money with the chance to earn more. The Twins needed Davis to replace Gaetti's run production, but Morris' value goes beyond mere performance.

Yes, he's 8-5 with a 3.69 ERA and ranks among the AL leaders with 97 2/3 innings pitched. But most important he's reducing the pressure on the Twins' young rotation, enabling the club's other starters -- Scott Erickson, Kevin Tapani et al -- to progress at their own pace.

The Orioles could use such a pitcher themselves, yet ignored that glaring need last winter. Their only high-priced addition was slugger Glenn Davis, and they traded for him only after clearing their roster of other high-priced players, most notably Mickey Tettleton and Phil Bradley.

Cal Ripken is their only player with an existing contract of three or more years. The Twins have three such players -- outfielder Kirby Puckett, first baseman Kent Hrbek and reliever Rick Aguilera. Together they are guaranteed $29 million.

pTC Thus, it's tempting to label the Orioles stingy and the Twins not. Unfortunately, it might be too simple an analysis. The Twins were sold in 1984 for a reported $38 million. The Orioles were sold four years later for $70 million.

No one knows how much majority owner Eli Jacobs borrowed to meet his purchase price, but new ownerships in Texas and Seattle claim their debt is a hindrance in competing for high-priced players. It's an explanation that frustrates fans and disturbs other clubs, but it's plausible nonetheless.

The Orioles, of course, admit to nothing, so maybe they're just pocketing the cash. Their payroll is the second lowest at $13.6 million. The Twins rank 14th at $22.8 million. "We don't have the debt service more recent purchases have," MacPhail said. "That gives us a little more of an operating margin."

Yet MacPhail said the Twins might still lose money this season. Such is the long-term cost of winning the 1987 World Series. The Twins kept Puckett and Hrbek, and would have gone broke if they re-signed Frank Viola, Tom Brunansky and Jeff Reardon as well.

Only seven players remain from that club, but here they are, four years later, winners of 15 straight. "The price of winning, you have to deal with," MacPhail said. "But it's better than not winning at all."

If only we knew. If only we knew.

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