The locals were getting restless. Orioles managing general partner Peter Angelos had promised them a free-agent spending spree, and many were beginning to wonder if he would be able to fulfill the expectations he created when he took control of the team in early October.
Merry Christmas, Baltimore.
There will be no NFL expansion team, but the Orioles took a giant step toward becoming a championship baseball club last night, when free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro agreed to terms on a five-year contract believed to be worth about $30 million.
General manager Roland Hemond confirmed that five days of intense negotiations with agent Jim Bronner had resulted in the biggest free-agent contract ever handed out by the club. The Orioles have called a 2 p.m. news conference today at Camden Yards to announce the newest addition to a team that has improved dramatically in a few short weeks.
"I'm elated," said Hemond, who negotiated the deal along with club counsel George Stamas and attorney Ted Segal. "I think this is a big boost for the entire organization. I'm grateful to Peter Angelos and the entire ownership group for making it possible."
The specific terms of the contract were not released, but it is believed to guarantee Palmeiro about $30 million, with about a fourth of the total guarantee deferred over a five-year period that begins after the 1998 season. That makes the present-day value of the deal closer to about $27.5 million. Hemond said last night that the club will release details of the agreement at today's news conference.
Palmeiro batted .295 with 37 home runs and 105 RBIs for the Texas Rangers last year, putting together a career season at just the right time to take advantage of his free-agent eligibility.
His original intention was to re-sign with the Rangers, but that opportunity disappeared after he turned down a five-year, $26.5 million offer and the Rangers turned to free-agent first baseman Will Clark instead.
"It would have been nice for things to work out [in Texas], but I'm not looking back," Palmeiro said last night from his Texas home. "I'm an Oriole now. It's good to be going to a team that wants you. I'm very excited about going up there. It's a team that can win."
The Orioles had expressed interest in signing him even before it was allowable to do so under baseball rules, but they made their first play for Clark, who passed up their five-year, $27.5 million dTC offer to sign a bigger deal with the Rangers. The club also considered former Oriole Eddie Murray before he signed a one-year deal with the Cleveland Indians.
There was room to wonder if Palmeiro and Bronner had waited themselves into a corner, but the Orioles stepped forward to add his bat to a lineup that already includes solid run producers Cal Ripken, Mike Devereaux, Chris Hoiles, Harold Baines and Brady Anderson.
This came as great news to Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who has known Palmeiro since the 29-year-old infielder was a minor-league prospect with the Chicago Cubs. Oates didn't do anything to hide his excitement, playfully ringing Christmas sleigh bells in the background as he talked about the deal from his Colonial Heights, Va., home.
"We needed that," he said. "We needed someone we could look to along with Cal Jr. and Harold Baines and some of our younger players. This gives us another impact guy. When it gets to crunch time, we can look down the dugout and see one of the best hitters in the game. It changes the complexion of our lineup a whole lot."
Presumably, Oates will insert Palmeiro in the third spot in the batting order, with either Baines or Hoiles hitting behind him and Ripken batting fifth. Palmeiro would provide an imposing presence anywhere in the lineup, but he established himself in the No. 3 spot with the Rangers.
The numbers make a strong case for keeping him there. He batted .316 with 28 home runs and 74 RBIs in just 376 at-bats after taking injured Jose Canseco's place in the third spot.
The addition of Palmeiro ends the club's hunt for offensive help, but Angelos says that there still is room on the payroll for another front-line starting pitcher -- if Hemond can come up with a package sufficient to acquire one.
The Orioles are known to have inquired about San Diego Padres pitcher Andy Benes and former Oriole Pete Harnisch of Houston, but may not have the available personnel to make a deal of that magnitude.
In the meantime, Angelos has taken two major steps toward a serious divisional challenge. He has committed nearly $40 million to bring Palmeiro and left-handed pitcher Sid Fernandez to Baltimore and -- in the process -- proven conclusively that the Eli Jacobs era of fiscal restraint is just a bad memory.
The deal was hammered out over five days of intense negotiations, beginning with a face-to-face meeting between Hemond and Bronner in Chicago Wednesday night. The major issues apparently were agreed upon relatively quickly, but it took several days to get together on the finer points of the contract.
Bronner, speaking from Chicago, said the Orioles sent their own doctors to Texas to examine Palmeiro.
"They put him through a very vigorous physical, which took a long time," Bronner said. "I've never been through anything like that before. It took awhile to set up."
Palmeiro will move right into the starting lineup at first base, displacing David Segui, who turned in a solid performance in his first season as a full-time player.
"I'm going to talk to David in the next day or two," Hemond said. "He's a versatile player -- a switch-hitter with some outfield experience who is a real asset. There still is some playing time for him."
Segui did nothing to play himself out of the position, but the Orioles ranked at or near the bottom of the American League in home runs and RBIs by their first basemen.
"I don't think I have to prove anything," Palmeiro said. "I think I've proven what I can do as a player. I think people know what I can do.
"I'm not going up there to be Superman. I'm going up there to do what I've always done -- be consistent, play every day and do everything I can to win."
His arrival was met with great enthusiasm by some of his prospective teammates. Left-hander Jamie Moyer, who played with him in Chicago from 1986 to '88, was particularly happy.
"That's great," Moyer said. "He has turned himself into a very good hitter and a good defensive first baseman. To add somebody of that caliber to our ballclub and in our ballpark is going to be outstanding.
"Just look at his numbers. I feel bad for David Segui because he had a great year for us, but to add his [Palmeiro's] numbers to our ballclub is going to be a very positive thing."
Pitcher Jim Poole last night told Channel 2: "The pitching staffs coming into our ballpark will be a little more intimidated."
Rafael Palmeiro has been one of baseball's most productive hitters since 1990.
Name.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Total
Barry Bonds .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..437
Rickey Henderson .. .. .. .. .. .. 415
Tony Phillips .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 411
Paul Molitor .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 407
Ron Gant .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..395
Palmeiro .. .. .. ... .. .. .. ... 395
Kirby Puckett .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 753
Paul Molitor .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 741
Palmeiro .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..733
Mark Grace .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 729
Brett Butler .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 726