The Orioles envision no one except Brady Anderson as their regular center fielder and Anderson envisions no one other than the Orioles as his team. At least until recent weeks, that belief seemed to make an agreement between franchise and player on a contract extension inevitable.
No more. What has been a cordial, informal process between Anderson and majority owner Peter Angelos also has become more complicated.
More than two months have passed since Angelos made a four-year, $22 million offer with deferrals to his All-Star center fielder and leadoff hitter. Nearly four months have passed since Anderson and agents Jeff Borris and Dennis Gilbert thought a breakthrough so inevitable they anticipated a joint news conference with pitcher Mike Mussina to announce simultaneous signings.
Anderson has prepared himself for the possibility of free agency after the season, a move he once considered unthinkable. Anderson has been seeking $6 million per season with no more than $1 million deferred money. The Orioles have offered $5.5 million for four seasons, with $1.25 million to $1.5 million deferred. The difference is relatively small, small enough for some within Anderson's camp to wonder why more hasn't been done sooner to avert what both parties agree would be an unwelcome winter divorce.
Angelos phoned Anderson yesterday to arrange a meeting for after the Orioles' three-day, four-game road trip to Kansas City. The meeting has been long-anticipated but delayed by Angelos' business and legal dealings.
At one point a deal might have been brokered, sources say, if the Orioles would have guaranteed $22 million over four years without deferred money or if they had acceded to an average $6 million with no more than $1 million deferred each year.
Made to wait, Anderson's number may be about to change, perhaps shoving the talks onto gray, more dangerous turf.
Saying the issue was becoming a distraction, Anderson has taken a more passive role recently. If nothing is done by month's end, it likely will remain unresolved until after the season.
"There is no deadline. There has never been a deadline," Anderson said. "If anybody says I have a deadline, they're wrong."
The longer negotiations lag, the more leverage Anderson holds. It's believed a large-market team such as the Los Angeles Dodgers or the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks might be willing to sign him for at least $7 million per season. Next year, under new ownership and without current center fielders Brett Butler and Otis Nixon, the Dodgers would salivate over the possibility of obtaining Anderson, a player as marketable as he is versatile.
Sources familiar with negotiations say Angelos may up the ante to $6 million for five years with deferrals, or $6 million for four years present-day value.
Anderson, 33, insists he loves Baltimore, its baseball fans and its institution/team. Rather than discuss the pull of money, Anderson speaks more convincingly of seeing young fans enter Camden Yards wearing his No. 9.
Here, he is recognized but can still roller-blade freely through the streets while playing within an hour of his Silver Spring birthplace. Those same reasons along with his athleticism and recent productivity make him an important player to the organization. He is one of several players who have made a connection with the community, a priceless commodity given the cynical state of the game.
Angelos steadfastly believes the club should maintain fiscal sanity by not overextending itself for one player. The philosophy caused the club to back off from seriously pursuing a trade for Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, then a potential free agent who re-signed with the Rangers just before the trade deadline. With Randy Myers eligible for free agency after this season and Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar and B. J. Surhoff eligible after next, Angelos is hardly seeking to push the club's financial envelope.
Just as damaging is suspicion of outside interference in the talks. While union chief Donald Fehr categorically denies exerting any influence on Anderson or his representatives, Orioles management drew its own conclusions from an unforeseen request for an option year.
Anderson's value jumped last October when the New York Mets signed Bernard Gilkey to a four-year, $20.4 million deal plus an option that makes the pact worth potentially $25 million over five years. Gilkey signed after a career season in which he batted .317 with 30 home runs, 117 RBIs and 13 stolen bases. Anderson batted .297 with 50 home runs, 110 RBIs and 21 steals.
As for the length of contract, the Cleveland Indians' signing of Marquis Grissom to a five-year extension created further momentum for Anderson to seek at least four years.
Anderson initially asked for $18 million over three years and the club countered at about $5 million per season. Gaining a fourth year once looked like it might cinch a deal but instead has become a sticking point.
Hopeful of concluding negotiations, Angelos offered the fourth year during a face-to-face meeting with Anderson before the All-Star break. When the offer not only failed to complete the deal but led to a request for an option year, talks chilled.
Angelos sees himself as a fan advocate and insists Anderson will remain an Oriole. Losing a player of Anderson's popularity and productivity -- especially with no apparent successor in the minor-league system -- might affect the public's perception of the organization.
Even at $7 million, Anderson might represent a bargain within a free-agent market including current Atlanta Braves center fielder Kenny Lofton. Having signed Greg Maddux to an unprecedented five-year, $57.5 million deal last week, the Braves are not willing to commit the $10 million-plus annually Lofton will likely command. Unlike Anderson, Lofton also is considered a loner and a clubhouse drain who learned his lessons well while playing next to Albert Belle with the Cleveland Indians.
The Orioles have control as well. For the next three months, but especially the next two weeks, they have the ability to make another powerful gesture within a potentially magical season. Compromise is getting more expensive by the day.
Pub Date: 8/19/97