Drill in hand, Davey Johnson's Florida dentist was prepared to dig into one of the manager's upper molars yesterday morning. But the ringing of a cellular phone delayed the painful procedure.
Johnson reached down to answer. A call from Orioles general manager Pat Gillick. "Well," Gillick said, "you've got yourself an All-Star second baseman."
Roberto Alomar, signed to a three-year, $18 million deal, much of the money deferred. Roberto Alomar, regarded as one of the best defensive infielders and perhaps the most dynamic talent in the game.
Johnson responded with some indication of happiness, and then there was an awkward silence. "Hey, you guys better keep on talking," Johnson said. "This guy's ready to start drilling here."
But, as Johnson would later say, he felt no pain the rest of the day, knowing the Orioles' lineup has been improved dramatically. Alomar, 27, is a six-time All-Star with five Gold Gloves who has hit at least .300 in each of the past four seasons. Johnson says for now, he is leaning toward batting Brady Anderson leadoff and Alomar second in the lineup.
As soon as the Orioles agreed to terms with Alomar, they quickly communicated this fact to the representative for free-agent pitcher David Cone, hoping this would help lure the former Cy Young Award winner.
But at about 4 p.m., Cone called Orioles owner Peter Angelos to tell him he was re-signing with the New York Yankees; Cone signed a three-year, $19.5 million deal, with options for 1999 and 2000, taking New York's offer over the three-year, $17.75 million contract dangled by the Orioles.
Although Gillick and Angelos were disappointed over losing Cone, they were thrilled at the prospect of teaming Alomar with Cal Ripken in the Orioles' infield.
"Someday, 50 years from now," Angelos said, "we'll be talking about how Alomar teamed up with Ripken. It kind of has a dramatic aura to it. We'll be talking about how the two came together."
Alomar said it's going to be "great playing" with Ripken. "It's going to be like a dream come true. I never expected to be playing alongside one of the legends of baseball. Hopefully, we're going to be a great combination.
"I didn't want to be part of a rebuilding team in Toronto [Alomar's former team]. I wanted to be part of a team that's going to win."
His arrival should help assure that. As Gillick said simply: "He's going to make us much more competitive."
Alomar signed for a $2 million signing bonus, with a $4 million salary for 1996, $6 million in 1997 and $6 million in 1998, with the usual incentive package for the MVP award, Gold Glove, etc.
The Orioles, wanting to reduce their payroll allocation over each of the next two years, will defer much of Alomar's annual salary -- $1.7 million in 1996, $1.7 million in '97, and $1.6 million in '98. The deferred salary will be paid to Alomar in the three years after this contract expires. The Orioles will pay no interest on the deferred money.
Money well spent, other Orioles said. "I think it's a great move for us," said pitcher Mike Mussina. "He's arguably the best player in the game. He fields, he hits, he runs, everything you can do -- at a position where we needed a guy who could do those things."
First baseman Rafael Palmeiro said he knew it was only a matter of time before Alomar would sign with the Orioles. They had talked toward the end of the season, and Alomar told him then he wanted to play for the Orioles.
The early negotiations between Alomar and the Orioles weren't particularly promising. Agent Jaime Torres asked Gillick for $23 million over three years, a proposal Gillick called "ridiculous."
Nonetheless, Alomar seemed to have it set in his mind that he was going to play with the Orioles. Late in November, he talked with a friend about a line of baseball footwear. "How do you think these would look in black and orange?" he asked.
Gillick and Johnson met with Torres early last week in Florida, and though a wide gulf remained, the talks were cordial. Early Wednesday, Torres called Gillick and, for the first time, indicated a willingness to reduce his demands. "We moved into the same " ballpark [financially]," Gillick said.
At Gillick's request, Angelos assumed control of the negotiations late Wednesday. The owner hammered out the final details with Torres early yesterday morning. Alomar, who will be at Camden Yards in person today, spoke to the media by speakerphone several hours later.
"I think we're going to go all the way," Alomar said. "I think this team is really strong right now. We can run a little bit now. We have a good defense up the middle, and with defense up the middle, you can win a lot of games."
Gillick has a few more moves to make. He wants to acquire one more front-line pitcher, and he contacted the representative for free-agent pitcher Chuck Finley yesterday. He's talked to the agent for pitchers Kenny Rogers and Kevin Brown (although Brown reportedly has a three-year, $14 million offer from Florida).
It doesn't matter, Johnson said, if Gillick lands one of these pitchers.
"To me, we can compete with anybody in our division right now. . . Gillick just made me a lot smarter," Johnson said. "I am a lot smarter than I was yesterday."
That was before Roberto Alomar became an Oriole.
Roberto Alomar profile
Age: 27 (Turns 28 Feb. 5).
History: The son of former major-leaguer Sandy Alomar, Roberto Alomar was only 20 years old when he first played in the big leagues, for the San Diego Padres. Despite showing extraordinary promise -- Alomar stole 90 bases in his first three years -- he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 1991 season along with outfielder Joe Carter for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. Alomar has blossomed since, hitting .300 or better each of the last four years and stealing more than 40 bases three times. In addition, he is generally regarded as the best defensive second baseman in the game.
His job with the Orioles: Shut down the right side of the infield on defense, and provide a dynamic offensive threat to the lineup. As manager Davey Johnson said last night, Alomar can hit anywhere in the lineup and be dangerous.
What he does well: He can hit for average, steal bases and play with as much defensive range and consistency as just about any infielder.
The potential upside: The Orioles are getting an All-Star who, if he continues to improve, could be recognized as one of the all-time greats.
The potential downside: Alomar angered some of the Toronto executives last season -- Pat Gillick included -- by effectively giving up in the season's final months as the Blue Jays sunk to the bottom of the standings. As an executive said last week, he can be a bad player on a bad team, or a great player on a good team.
X-factor: Playing alongside Ripken. Alomar's energy level will be elevated by his new surroundings, anyway, but it's hard to imagine him losing interest playing beside someone he idolizes.
Key stats: A switch-hitter, last season he hit almost 100 points higher against right-handers (.323) than against lefties (.231). . . . He batted .389 late in close games, and .378 leading off innings. . . . Before the All-Star break, he hit .316, .284 after. . . . He has a lifetime batting average of .552 against Cleveland right-hander Jack McDowell. . . . Even in an off-year, he had more walks (47) than strikeouts (45).