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O's-Olson hardball called for softer pitch

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gregg Olson cleaned out his locker at Camden Yards yesterday, said goodbye to several public relations employees, left personal thank-you notes for others. It was a heartbreaking scene, and judging by the contract Olson signed with Atlanta, it should never have taken place.

A $500,000 guarantee, $1 million for being on the Opening Day roster, incentives that could push his total salary to $3.5 million. Owner Peter Angelos said the Orioles would have leaped at that deal if Olson's agent, Jeff Moorad, had been agreeable to it on Dec. 20, the deadline for offering the reliever a contract.

Olson wanted to stay in Baltimore. The Orioles wanted to keep him. The deal he accepted was fair to both sides. So, why did he wind up in Atlanta? Because of oversized egos and overvalued dollars, poor communications and hardball negotiations -- in short, everything that is wrong with the labor-management side of the game.

Both Moorad and Angelos would be wise to reflect on their contributions to this sad episode. Moorad could have kept Olson in Baltimore if he hadn't been so inflexible on Dec. 20. And Angelos could have met the same goal if he hadn't been so obsessed with humbling Moorad.

"I think he lays down ultimatums," Angelos said yesterday. "There are people who are real experienced negotiators who will not deal with people who lay down ultimatums. That's not negotiating. That's being a wise guy, a smart guy, which in many quarters doesn't pass the test."

The Orioles have now failed to sign two Moorad clients (Olson and Will Clark) and replaced them with two represented by Jim Bronner (Lee Smith and Rafael Palmeiro). Jamie Moyer and Chris Sabo also are represented by Bronner. Jeffrey Hammonds is now the only Oriole under Moorad.

Hammonds, a rookie, is not yet eligible for arbitration, so the Orioles can set his salary on their terms. They'll try to negotiate a fair deal, but what happens if Hammonds becomes the next Kirby Puckett? Years from now, will Angelos still be trying to stare down Moorad?

Moorad had an excellent relationship with the Orioles before Angelos purchased the team. Along with his partner, Leigh Steinberg, he represents 45 baseball players and 70 football players, including many of the NFL's top quarterbacks.

"He's a very talented agent. He's a very sharp negotiator," Angelos said. "His approach and his tactics may work very well in most situations. But sometimes, all of us have to make adjustments when we encounter individuals who our approach doesn't work very well with.

"I think he's smart enough to make the adjustment. On our side, we understand his approach. We, too, can make adjustments to deal with him. I don't predict there will be ongoing difficulties. He's a bright guy. Intelligent people work out their differences."

Moorad agreed that is possible. In fact, he said he likes Angelos. "We're coming off a very emotional situation involving Gregg Olson that resembles little of the business the Orioles will conduct in the future," he said.

"As Roland Hemond and I agreed early on, the Gregg Olson situation was as unique and unparalleled as anything that either of us had come across in our years of baseball. Having that resolved and behind us, I look forward to many positive dealings with the new management in Baltimore."

This time, though, he might have overplayed his hand. On Dec. 20, with the contract deadline looming, he asked for a package that would have paid Olson a $1 million guarantee, another $1 million on March 20 if he wasn't on the disabled list with an elbow injury, and close to $4 million in all if he met every incentive.

The Orioles thought that exorbitant. They didn't want to commit $2 million by March 20 to a pitcher in questionable physical condition. Instead, they offered a $1 million guarantee and $800,000 in incentives for Olson's first 30 games -- about half his normal total.

Angelos said the club was prepared to add incentives that would have increased the value of the package to more than $3 million. But Moorad clung to his original proposal, and Angelos said the Orioles broke off negotiations before completing their offer.

"It would have been taken up to its fullest potential," Angelos said. "That was never the problem. The problem was the guarantee. If he would have attained the higher [incentive] numbers, that would have meant he was successful, and the team was successful. We would have been delighted to pay."

But when the two sides failed to strike a deal before the deadline, the Orioles declined to offer Olson a contract, making him a free agent. "Unfortunately, with the emotions involved in the non-tender situation, our discussions broke down at that point, and they never were really rehabilitated by either side," Moorad said.

For that, Angelos blames the agent. "Had Moorad sat down with us [on Dec. 20], in light of the special circumstances [regarding Olson's condition], there's no question in my mind Gregg would still be an Oriole today," Angelos said. "No doubt whatsoever."

The equation changed once Olson became a free agent. Olson no doubt was stung by the Orioles' decision and was determined to test the market. In addition, Moorad said, he wasn't interested in accepting a reduced role proposed by the Orioles to protect him against further injury.

"It was Gregg's strong feeling that if the ligament in his elbow was going to be a problem, he was much more open to it becoming a problem in a hurry rather than having a half-speed season thatwould set him up as a free agent in a much less competitive position," Moorad said.

And so the sides went their separate ways. At one point, Moorad told club officials he had a four-year offer with $4 million guaranteed from a team that Olson was not interested in joining (the California Angels). Realizing they might lose their all-time save leader, the Orioles signed Lee Smith.

The split grew so pronounced, the Orioles apparently never had -- or sought -- the chance to match the Braves' offer. Privately, club officials are skeptical that Olson will extend himself in spring training, knowing he stands to earn $1 million simply by making the Braves' Opening Day roster.

A $500,000 guarantee -- half the Orioles' original offer -- a total package that could reach $3.5 million. For that money, Gregg Olson should still be an Oriole. Maybe Moorad and Angelos will grasp that reality by the time Olson becomes a free agent next winter. Maybe then they can get it right.

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