Ask Roland Hemond about making a move to help his ballclub and he'll tell you about the time he gave Eric Soderholm a tryout in the snow at Comiskey Park and wound up with a starting third baseman. Or the times his scouts insisted, when no one else did, that Mark McLemore and Fernando Valenzuela could still play.
The Orioles general manager is an old-fashioned baseball man, fit more for a grainy newsreel than today's hardball world of economics, leverage and computer spreadsheets. He freely admits he gets more of a charge from uncovering bargains than from shopping for the high-dollar free agents who drive the game today.
"A story like Fernando is a lot more fun," he said the other day, "than signing some free agent for five years at megabucks when everyone knows he can play and a lot is expected of him and even if he does well he's not appreciated because everyone says he ought to do well."
There can be no debating that Hemond has excelled at improving the Orioles with talent found on the bottom shelves and discard racks. McLemore, Valenzuela, Jamie Moyer, Tim Hulett, Jim Poole, Mike Pagliarulo -- the Orioles' postseason chances would have died months ago without them.
But there also can be no debating that the Orioles have suffered for their failure to reinvest some of the Camden Yards riches into high-priced, top-level talent. "Eli [Jacobs] was great to me," Hemond insisted, but the club is going to finish a length or two behind the big-spending Blue Jays for the second straight year and third in five, and the lesson is obvious: The Jays are just better.
In other words, you can build a decent team, but not a division winner, shopping for bargains.
Hemond took a fair amount of criticism for this institutional penuriousness until it dawned on everyone that as owner, Jacobs was the one holding the wallet. The Orioles weren't taking their best shot, but Hemond was guilty only of doing what his boss wanted. The criticism of him, which peaked in 1991, has cooled with two seasons of close to 90 wins.
In fact, it's becoming clear that Hemond is not just surviving, but thriving. He's going to be one of the winners in the transition from Jacobs to Peter Angelos, who, in assessing the Orioles' crowded front office, told The Baltimore Sun's Mark Hyman, "Hemond in particular knows what he's doing."
That's an affirmation if ever there was one, and it's going to
leave Hemond in interesting circumstances. Angelos also told Hyman that his Orioles, while not going nutty, plan to annex the free agents that would "take [the club] to a level where it is capable of winning a division." Hemond, the avowed bargain hunter, is going to be point man. The Accidental Shopper. Can he do it? Does he know how?
Hemond, 63, just laughs. "I've seen it all," he said. "I've been in all sorts of situations in my career. With each ownership there are different methods. In Chicago, Bill Veeck told me not to worry about the budget because we didn't have any money. Then when Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn purchased the team, all of a sudden it was different. We went out and signed Carlton Fisk."
So: He has done the free-agent drill. Does that mean he can handle it this time? Probably. We're not talking about some terrifying fate or impossible adjustment. We're talking about someone making him spend more money, basically. Life's tough.
Besides, the Orioles don't have a long shopping list. They've got the framework of a contender already in place. They need another consistent starting pitcher and a power hitter. A couple of pieces of the puzzle, and not necessarily the biggest.
"It always comes down to spending the money wisely, regardless of what you do," he said. "When I came here I was told by all sorts of fans, 'Hey, don't get mixed up with free agents.' They weren't satisfied with the crop [Don Aase, Fred Lynn, Lee Lacy]. They didn't win a title and in fact led to the 1988 season [and an 0-21 start]."
Hemond can't hide his skepticism of big-dollar free agency.
"Most of the time, it seems to me," he said, "[owners] aren't satisfied with the performances because they don't seem to jive with the price. And the public doesn't seem to enjoy it either because, no matter how well he does, if he has one bad month people aren't satisfied."
But, for better or for worse, here we go. . .
"Given more support financially, I truly believe [Hemond] can do even more favorable trading, recruiting and so on," Angelos told Hyman.
And from Ocean City to Deep Creek Lake, the cry rises: "Spend, Roland, Spend!"