FORT MYERS, Fla. -- If it's any consolation, the Orioles aren't the only club facing the loss of a franchise player. Their predicament with Cal Ripken is shared by Minnesota with Kirby Puckett, Pittsburgh with Barry Bonds, Texas with Ruben Sierra.
All potential free agents.
All small-market teams.
"That's a good indication that whatever is going to come upon us is upon us," Twins general manager Andy MacPhail said yesterday. "If we were in large markets, those guys in all likelihood would be inked by now. The fact they're out there is an indication we're struggling to make ends meet."
MacPhail overstates the case, but he speaks of the most important challenge facing baseball in the '90s: Resolving the inequity that exists between large-market clubs with vast revenue sources and small-market clubs with less lucrative means.
That's no excuse for the Orioles' senseless delay with Ripken, which only costs them more money each day. Coming off a record attendance, moving into a new stadium, they're in no position to cry poverty. Yet, they're not immune from the small-market problem either.
"The cost of paying a Cal Ripken may be that the Orioles have to reassess the lower half of their roster," said Jeff Moorad, the agent for Orioles reliever Gregg Olson. "Instead of carrying $750,000 players, they may keep young players making the minimum ($109,000 in '92) or close to it."
That trend is already in motion -- witness the record number of major leaguers signing Triple-A contracts -- but with the exception of Cincinnati's signing of Barry Larkin, the small-market clubs have yet to show they can keep pace at the top end of the scale.
Think of the major signings this winter: Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull in New York, Jack Morris in Toronto, Frank Viola in Boston, Ryne Sandberg in Chicago. In a baseball sense, those cities all qualify as large markets. The Blue Jays drew 4 million last season. The Red Sox belong to all New England.
Los Angeles is the other major TV market, and one of its teams, the Dodgers, landed last year's biggest free-agent prize, Darryl Strawberry. Meanwhile, the Orioles face a minimum $30 million investment in Ripken. And the Twins are in the same uneasy position with Puckett.
Bonds and Sierra carry less stature in their communities, and both were the subjects of trade rumors this week -- Bonds to Atlanta, Sierra to Philadelphia. Sierra's last demand was $27.5 million for five years. The Rangers offered $14.375 million guaranteed for three, plus two option years.
"We're tied to decisions made in New York," Texas club president Thomas Schieffer said, referring to the signings of Bonilla ($29 million) and Tartabull ($25.5) by the Mets and Yankees. "We shouldn't be responsible for mistakes made in New York."
The flip side of the argument is that the competitive imbalance rarely extends to the field. In fact, the large-market Yankees and Dodgers were dynasties in the days of lower salaries. But under the current system, the small-market Twins have won two of the last five World Series.
The Twins juggle their roster creatively and manage their money wisely. Their latest bold stroke came Tuesday, when they preyed on small-market Pittsburgh to acquire potential free-agent lefthander John Smiley for two top minor-league prospects.
Smiley, 27, was one of four 20-game winners in the majors last season. The Twins assumed all but $835,000 of his $3.44 million salary, but they might only be renting him for a year. It was a necessary gamble, MacPhail said, and not for the obvious reason of replacing Morris.
"If these salaries continue to escalate at the present level, it ultimately will be beyond our ability to compete," MacPhail said. "One of the motivations behind the deal was, "We're in this position. We've got to take advantage of it while we can.' "
Planning for the apocalypse.
Can you imagine?
Moorad says the owners can address the issue by pooling all their broadcast revenue, then dividing it equally. Large-market clubs could still maintain their edge through increased ticket sales and merchandising. But at least then a troubled club like Seattle could survive.
Sounds reasonable, but the owners no doubt will demand concessions from the players too. Either side can reopen labor talks after this season. The owners want to overhaul the entire system, starting with salary arbitration. The players, naturally, want proof of their financial duress.
"The solution is for greater minds than mine to figure out," MacPhail said. "Clearly change is inevitable. Two years ago we made Kirby Puckett the highest-paid player at $3 million. He was a unique guy. He deserved to be the highest-paid. But 70 players have passed him since then.
"You tell me, in two seasons can 70 players -- 10 percent of the workforce -- pass what Sandberg got [four years, $28.4 million]?
"It can't happen," MacPhail said. "It can't go on this way."