ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If a labor agreement is ever reached and the rules allow San Diego Padres pitcher Andy Benes to become a free agent, he is sure of one thing.
"I won't be back with the Padres," said Benes, whose desire for a five-year contract is at odds with San Diego's desire to limit the contracts of pitchers to three years.
So where then for Benes, who led the National League in strikeouts in 1994? Well, the idea of playing in the Midwest, in St. Louis, appeals to Benes, a native of Evansville, Ind. It doesn't hurt, either, that his brother Alan is a top prospect in the St. Louis organization.
But Benes isn't sure if the Cardi- nals will give him a five-year deal, either. St. Louis already made a substantial investment in its pitching staff this off-season, giving Danny Jackson a three-year, $11 million contract.
Benes' second choice?
"I think it would be exciting to play for them," Benes said of the Orioles. "If I could pick one place to play, for atmosphere, that would be it. In January, my agent [Scott Boras] was talking to me about which teams I would want to include in a no-trade clause in my next contract.
"I pretty much knocked off all the teams in the East -- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal. Baltimore was the only one I was interested in."
The feeling is mutual. Speaking of potential free agents early in spring, Orioles manager Phil Regan raved about Benes. But owner Peter Angelos may have to wait a year before getting his first shot at Benes, who, under baseball's current formula of free agency, is tied to the Padres through 1995.
That could change. Several general managers and agents polled last week said that players with more than five years of service will get free agency under a new agreement. Benes has five years and 13 days.
If money is no obstacle -- and, since Angelos bought the team, it hasn't been -- signing Benes to a five-year contract makes some sense. He is 27, he's extremely durable (Benes never has missed a start) and he's an exceptional talent, with a fastball consistently clocked at 90-92 mph and a sharp slider. Adding Benes to a rotation of Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina, Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes would give the Orioles, at the very least, the most imposing staff in the league, and very likely the best.
Boras wondered aloud last week, "Do you think they would do that, keep McDonald and sign Benes?"
"Wow," he said. "That would be something."
Benes said, "That would be extremely interesting."
Don't forget that signing Benes would afford Angelos a bit of one-upmanship, a heavy-handed response to former Orioles president Larry Lucchino and his hiring of four Orioles employees in San Diego.
Take our assistant scouting director, eh? Well, we'll just take your best pitcher.
But there would be risks, particularly in giving Benes a five-year deal and the $20 million to $24 million likely required for a contract of such length.
In spite of his ability, Benes hasn't had a breakthrough-type season. His lifetime record is 65-68, his ERA 3.51. Playing for lousy teams has undoubtedly hurt him; San Diego had the majors' worst defense in 1994, and the worst middle defense the past two years.
Last season, however, Benes consistently pitched just well enough to lose. If the Padres scored two runs, he would give up three. If they staked him to a 4-0 lead, he would give up five runs. Benes led the NL in losses in '94, going 6-14.
During this off-season, veteran right fielder Tony Gwynn criticized Benes, saying that he let himself get distracted by his contract situation and his union work as player representative. This occurred, Gwynn said, "a lot more than we'd like to think about."
One NL manager privately agrees with Gwynn. But he also thinks that playing in a different atmosphere, for a winning club, would benefit Benes tremendously.
"If he had some veteran players behind him," the manager said, "he would concentrate better. I think it was tough on him the last couple of years, pitching in games that really didn't mean anything in the standings."
Angelos would have something else to think about: Is he ready to give McDonald the same type of contract as he gives Benes?
Benes and McDonald are about the same age. They have had similar records (McDonald's career numbers are 55-47, 3.86). They are both former No. 1 picks. McDonald has four years and 114 days of service time, but could reach five years if the days lost to the strike are reinstated through collective bargaining.
And, most important of all, Benes and McDonald employ the same agent. Boras undoubtedly would use one client to help the other. If, for example, Angelos gives Benes a five-year contract for $22.5 million, then he'll have to offer McDonald something close to that. Signing Benes and losing McDonald really does nothing to improve the team.
Having both of them would cost the Orioles in the range of $42 million to $50 million. That's an incredible investment for two pitchers, neither of whom has won more than 15 games in a season. (To think that the Dodgers balked at giving Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale a total of $300,000 . . .)
But that rotation: McDonald, Mussina, Benes. Three great arms. Three great young arms. Very tempting.
Benes' attraction to Baltimore began in the summer of 1993, when he pitched in the All-Star Game at Camden Yards in the midst of the Padres' fire sale. San Diego had just traded Gary Sheffield and, within two weeks, would trade Fred McGriff and Benes' two best friends, Greg Harris and Bruce Hurst.
The crowds at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium had dwindled to almost nothing; Padres left fielder Phil Plantier said at the time that it was like participating in a high school game, because you could hear every word said by each of the fans in attendance.
Playing at Camden Yards, Benes has said since, was the most fun he has had in baseball.
"It's just a much different situation pitching on the West Coast," Benes said. "The attention given to baseball in the Midwest or East is different; you can feel it when you're pitching.
"I talk to Ben every once in a while, and from what he says, you get to pitch in that atmosphere all the time. . . . And to be honest with you, I don't know what it would be like to play with so many veteran players behind me. There's been such a revolving door of players out here. I can't imagine having an All-Star shortstop behind me every night."
If everything falls into place, he could get the chance.
One for the ages
Pedro Borbon Jr., on his father's decision to return to baseball as a replacement player for the Cincinnati Reds at the age of 48: "Shoot, if George Foreman can make a comeback, so can my dad. Boxing is a much harder sport. Like I was telling my wife, he might establish himself in the big leagues before I ever do."
?3 Hopefully, Junior doesn't really feel that way.
Atlanta Braves right-hander John Smoltz says the strike is affecting his recuperation from elbow surgery. Last September, Smoltz had a bone spur removed.
"The hard thing is rhythm," Smoltz said, "trying to maintain some type of consistent workouts. It would be tough to be ready by Opening Day. I don't know if I could do it."
Anyone who tells you he knows exactly when the strike will be resolved is kidding himself.
But one thing for certain is that until both sides understand they cannot win, nothing will happen.
A resolution will require major concessions from both sides, and whenever that occurs, Donald Fehr and Bud Selig are going to feel stupid.
One can just imagine what their reaction will be: "We gave up all this -- the playoffs and World Series and all that money -- for this?"
Tom Browning, who broke his arm throwing a pitch last summer, had a tryout with the Los Angeles Dodgers last week and was impressive. Browning said he won't sign with anyone until the strike is over. Browning's arm snapped 3 inches below his shoulder last May. "There is a risk with him," said Dodgers team doctor Frank Jobe, "but it may be one of those risks you want to take. I'm guessing he probably needs two or more months until he gradually builds up to that point. It'll continue to heal and get stronger for another year." . . . Bill Swift, who had talked with the Orioles, is leaning toward accepting a three-year, $10 million contract with the Rockies. . . . Yankees owner George Steinbrenner vows vengeance against anyone who retaliates against replacement players. "I have no ill will against the union or those players," Steinbrenner said, "but anyone who throws at one of my guys, I'll take them to court. And I'll stay with it until it gets to the Supreme Court . . . because when you throw a fastball at 90 or 100 mph, that's a deadly weapon."
From the home office in Sarasota, Fla., the Top 10 reasons intrasquad games are better than exhibitions against other teams:
10. Players can discuss post-game meal while running bases.
9. No beanball wars.
8. If you leave jersey at hotel, can always borrow from opposing coach.
7. Players have no fear of trades.
6. Road trips are a breeze.
5. Fans have a better than even chance of getting a foul ball.
4. No need for advance scouting.
3. Base coaches never have to leave their box.
2. No trickery, because everybody knows the signs.
1. Orioles always win.