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If Martinez returns, watch Jays squirm


Chris Sabo seems a perfect fit for the Orioles, assuming the club's biggest need is a third baseman, not a starting pitcher. Club officials are divided on that question, and their desire to add pitching is leading them back to an old friend:

Dennis Martinez.

For a team infatuated with its former players -- Rick Dempsey, Mike Flanagan, Storm Davis, et al. -- the Montreal Expos right-hander is an intriguing possibility. And for a pitcher who left Baltimore with his career in shambles, the chance to return a hero is equally appealing.

Martinez, 38, isn't campaigning to rejoin the Orioles -- that would be reverse tampering. In fact, his first choice might be to stay in the National League, where he is five victories short of becoming only the sixth pitcher in major-league history to win 100 games in each league.

Still, Martinez retains a fondness for Baltimore. He can veto any trade as a 10-year veteran with five years of service to his current team. But in an interview yesterday from San Francisco, he indicated he would strongly consider approving a trade to the Orioles.

"I wished I had been down there for the All-Star Game," said Martinez, who failed to make the NL team with a 10-6 record and 3.31 ERA. "That was my home. I was hoping to celebrate the big day with everyone in Baltimore, to remind me of the times I was there.

"Coming back to where you started, that's always a great feeling," Martinez continued. "My heart is still there. It means a lot to anybody, to go back to the place where he started."

But how badly do the Orioles want Martinez? Rick Sutcliffe pitched a strong game Saturday night, and Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela are a combined 10-3 with a 2.54 ERA during the club's 30-12 stretch. July 30 is the deadline for making trades without waivers. Maybe nothing will change by then.

Besides, with so many teams in contention, the demand for pitching is unusually high, driving up the price for top starters like Martinez. The Orioles could stick with their three smoke-and-mirrors veterans, and focus everything on acquiring Sabo from Cincinnati.

However, as club president Larry Lucchino said, "There's a strong feeling that pitching is the most important ingredient. We're not doing this because we have any problem with any of our starters -- all five have been terrific. But you've got to prepare yourself for the event of injury or some other reversal."

What if one of the veterans fades? Or what if Mike Mussina is reinjured? Then, the Orioles would be left with the erratic Arthur Rhodes or a Triple-A callup like John O'Donoghue. A seasoned )) veteran -- Martinez, Tim Belcher, whomever -- would be far preferable.

In theory, the Orioles could acquire both Sabo and Martinez and pay the balance of their salaries, but that would strap their farm system. Both players could depart as free agents, and the draft picks the club would receive probably would not compensate for the prospects lost.

It's a difficult call, but the Orioles ultimately might need pitching more than a third baseman. They've averaged 5.5 runs per game for six weeks now. Sabo wouldn't add much if he forces Mark McLemore back to the outfield and reduces playing time for Jeffrey Hammonds. Besides, no one is giving up on Leo Gomez.

There's another element: Toronto is believed to be heavily interested in Martinez -- and could probably secure his approval for a trade by offering a contract extension. The Blue Jays are still the team to beat. Why not make them squirm for a change?

It's the perfect pre-emptive strike, the perfect midseason acquisition. Keith Moreland (1989) and Craig Lefferts (1992) were mercenary robots. Martinez couldn't wait to return for the final weekend at Memorial Stadium two years ago. He'd pitch his heart out for the Orioles.

"We had a lot of great people, a lot of people who cared," said Martinez, who was an Oriole from 1976 to '86. "That final weekend brought back a lot of great memories. We all ended up in tears. It showed how close our relationship was with each other, and the fans."

Martinez, however, didn't revive his career until getting traded to Montreal for infielder Rene Gonzales. He's 95-69 with a 2.96 ERA since joining the Expos. His drinking problems are long behind him. Today, he's considered one of the great comeback stories in the game.

The Expos are 9 1/2 games out, and each step backward increases the chances that Martinez will be traded. "I'm keeping my door open," he said. "It's always nice to see there are a lot of people interested. It wasn't like that when I left Baltimore."

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