Branch Rickey first said it, and it is one baseball axiom that never seems to wear out: Sometimes the best deals are the ones that are never made.
What better example than the scuttled trade that would have sent Orioles first baseman Randy Milligan to the Montreal Expos for a couple of promising young pitchers last December? There were talks with other clubs, too, but there were so many available first basemen that Milligan did not draw enough interest to complete a deal.
Not that the Orioles didn't try. The club came so close to a deal that normally tight-lipped general manager Roland Hemond criticized Montreal for backing off at the last minute. Now, the Orioles couldn't be happier the trade ran aground.
Here's an intriguing question. What if it hadn't?
What if the Orioles had succeeded in trading Milligan to the Expos for -- in a best-case scenario -- two pitchers with major-league experience? Where would the club be in the
standings today? It is hard to imagine the Orioles could be doing any better than they have the first two months of the season, and things could be a lot worse.
"We'll never know that," manager Johnny Oates said, "because if we had gotten what we wanted, we might have been a better club. The people we wanted were pretty good ballplayers."
True, it's impossible to answer with any certainty, but the fallout from such a trade would have been felt throughout the Orioles roster.
If the club had acquired two pitchers of reasonable quality, it seems unlikely that it would have traded for Storm Davis and signed free agent Rick Sutcliffe. If the Expos had given up one pitcher and infielder Bret Barberie (a deal that was rumored but never seriously discussed), it might have altered the chemistry of the staff and the infield.
"I think it's obvious that the ripple effect -- with all the people involved -- would have changed the complexion of the team," Oates said, "but that's the way it usually is with something of that magnitude."
Still, it's fun to wonder.
Take away Davis and you have to put reserve catcher Bob Melvin back on the roster, which creates a playing-time problem. Melvin is a solid backup catcher, but he could not have been expected to sit as much as rookie Jeff Tackett. If Melvin remains, does Chris Hoiles get off to such a great start at the plate?
Take away Sutcliffe and you take away more than a pitcher who entered the weekend tied for the league lead with nine victories. You take away the anchor that has helped hold the young staff together.
Take away Milligan and the Orioles would have had no run-production threat to replace Glenn Davis when he spent much of the first two months on the sidelines. David Segui is a solid first baseman and a good contact hitter, but he would have been hard-pressed to produce enough runs to fill that void.
Milligan just shakes his head and smiles at all this. He spent an uncertain off-season, not knowing whether he would be traded and not sure if it wouldn't be the best thing for him.
"I was very expendable, all winter and all spring," he said. "I'm just happy the way things worked out."
There are plenty more ifs to go around. There also was off-season interest in Brady Anderson, who has emerged as the team's offensive leader. If someone had offered enough -- and enough wasn't all that much at the time -- the Orioles might have convinced themselves that Luis Mercedes or Darrell Sherman could do the job at the top of the lineup. That might be the difference between a run at the division title and a rebuilding year.
:. That Branch Rickey was a pretty smart guy.
Cash for Kirby: Baltimore isn't the only major-league city worried about losing a popular and productive player. Negotiations between the Minnesota Twins and outfielder Kirby Puckett have failed to produce any results, and Twin Cities baseball fans are losing their patience.
Last week, a radio station organized a "March on the Metrodome" to protest the slow-moving contract talks. The contract dispute has become such a cause celebre that one of the most popular radio plays in town is a spoof of John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance."
G; The chorus: "All we are saying, is give Puck the cash."
Contractual bliss: Sutcliffe has been careful to remain on the sidelines during the Cal Ripken contract negotiations, but he remembers the last time he had to mix business and baseball.
"It was in '89 and it was really a huge distraction for the club [Chicago Cubs] at that time," he said. "A couple of guys even commented in the papers that they hoped I wouldn't leave. I was making $2.4 million in my final year and [Andre] Dawson and [Ryne] Sandberg were both making $2.1 million. I just wanted to get it done, so I went in and signed a two-year deal worth $2.1 million a year."
Times have changed since then. Sandberg signed a contract that could pay him as much as $7 million per year, and Ripken is on deck. But Sutcliffe said the Ripken situation has not been a distraction.
"I haven't even noticed it," he said. "I would not even like to comment on his deal. It's a private thing."
Sutcliffe on Sutcliffe: The four-game winning streak that boosted Sutcliffe into a tie for the American League lead in victories prompted someone to ask him how long he thinks he can pitch.
"There are a couple of ways to look at that," he said. "There were two years with the Dodgers at the beginning of my career when I didn't get to pitch, and the last two years in Chicago I didn't get to pitch. That's at least four years I've got left in my shoulder."
The more serious side of Sutcliffe concedes that his future depends on his health and his ability to pitch without seriously disrupting his home life.
"The two months I was away from my family this year were pretty tough," he said. "If I keep pitching after this year, I'll have to set up a more permanent arrangement."
Trivia quiz: What Orioles pitcher gave up the most grand slams during his career with the club?
From the home office in Arnold: With the usual apologies to talk show host and future baseball commissioner David Letterman, here's my top 10 list of reasons the Seattle Mariners' sale to Japanese businessmen wasn't such a great idea, afterall:
* 10. Plans to rename team the Pacific Rim Chinichi Ham-Fighting Carp could further erode fan loyalty.
* 9. Opposing GMs certain to have trouble overcoming restrictive trade barriers.
* 8. Sushi not allowed on Kevin Mitchell's "I want to look like Cecil" diet.
* 7. Baseball will continue to be played in the Kingdome.
* 6. Frightening prospect: Three national anthems when Blue Jays come to town.
* 5. MLB will have to brace for overseas bidding war while trying to convince players union that most teams are losing money.
* 4. It's proof that even Japanese are more likely to "Buy American" than we are.
* 3. Could prompt Dan Quayle diatribe on collapse of traditional baseball values.
* 2. We'll have to listen to at least eight more years of whining from Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., area.
* 1. Nintendo president still hoping to exercise control over club -- probably with tiny handset.
Trivia answer: The grand slam gopher-ball champion of the Orioles was Milt Pappas, who gave up six as an Oriole and owns a share of the major-league record with nine. Pappas, of course, was one of three players traded to the Cincinnati Reds for Frank Robinson, who -- interestingly enough -- never hit a grand slam at Memorial Stadium.