Orioles owe buying binge to loyal fans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles were unable to develop a contending team, so they have gone out and bought one. And let's face it, there is a certain obscenity in that.

The idea of a team trying to buy a pennant has offended fans everywhere since the arrival of free agency two decades ago. Why? Maybe because George Steinbrenner did it first. Maybe because it boils the game down to who has the biggest wallet and not the most skill, and that isn't what the game is supposed to be about.

"This isn't really the way you would want to [build a contender]," Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said last week.

"Boy, they sure do have a lot of money," Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette grumped Thursday upon hearing that Roberto Alomar had signed with the Orioles.

Who could fault Duquette for his undisguised envy/disgust? He had just watched a major division rival basically make up for years of organizational ineptitude by spending about $32 million on five new players in eight days. Abner Doubleday would have burped.

But as undeniably obscene as the Orioles' shopping spree is, a more grievous obscenity would have occurred had the Orioles not spent the money to put a contending team on the field.

Buying a pennant may not be so swell in the grand scheme of baseball, but taking fans for granted is the worst possible sin. And the Orioles would have been guilty of taking their fans for granted had they not spent all this money to upgrade the team.

Yes, it has been a given since Peter Angelos took over that the club would spend whatever it thought was necessary to produce a winner. For all the mistakes Angelos might have made, his commitment to winning has never been in doubt.

But remember, before Angelos there was the reign of Eli Jacobs, who pocketed tall stacks of the ever-growing Memorial Stadium and gargantuan Camden Yards revenues instead of doing the decent thing and pouring the money back into talent.

That was cynical sports ownership at its worst; big crowds were assured long before Opening Day, so there was no real incentive for the team to win, and, lo and behold, it didn't invest nearly as much as it could. Mickey Tettleton was dumped to make room on the payroll for Glenn Davis. A washed-up Dwight Evans constituted a major free-agent signing. The situation was borderline fraud.

Then, after Eli came two years of GM Roland Hemond spending Angelos' money, but not always so wisely. Now, with Gillick spending Angelos' money, it appears the team has finally gotten things straightened out.

Sure, it's easy to sit here in Baltimore and sanction a spending spree that seems beyond the reaches of many other teams. But what were the Orioles supposed to do? Go back to the Eli days and pocket the profits? Hardly. Just give up and allow their prospect-free minor-league system to pull them by the nose through a few lean years? Hardly.

No, a team that led the American League in attendance last season, and probably will lead it again next season, has done exactly what it was supposed to do: as much as it could for its fans.

Besides, this is just the way the game is played now. Any fan still stuck on the idea of having his team grow its own contender has his head firmly planted in the sand.

The Indians have taken bows for scouting, signing and developing the majority of a championship club, but look a little closer at the team that played in the World Series. Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray came via free agency. Jose Mesa, Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton came via trades.

And look at the Braves team that beat Cleveland in the Series. They're supposedly a model of player development, but they had to trade for Fred McGriff and sign Greg Maddux away from the Cubs to get over the top.

Sure, those two teams will have far more home-grown players on the field in 1996 than the Orioles, who, at this point, can count their relevant home-growners on one hand.

But don't miss the point. Any team with real designs on winning puts money into free agents these days. Even the traditionally frugal Mariners got into it this year.

Besides, it's not as if the Orioles are going to go this wild every year. They have locked up Alomar and B. J. Surhoff for three years and closer Randy Myers for two; they're going to have to live with this nucleus, for better or worse, for a couple of years.

But the bottom-line point is that, however lacking in purity the Orioles' buy-a-contender philosophy may be, it was the appropriate course for the franchise to take.

Baltimore has been one of the few bright lights in baseball these past few years, one of the few places that hasn't kicked the game in the pants for its many sins. For that loyalty, the town deserves a winner. No matter how it is built.

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