Hoping to announce the signing of a $115 million left-right combination that would salvage their listing off-season, the Orioles were instead stunned yesterday when incumbent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro rejected their five-year, $50 million offer to accept a $45 million package with the Texas Rangers.
Palmeiro's reversal not only bruised a lineup bolstered by the acquisition of Albert Belle, but bruised feelings within an organization that twice thought it had reached an agreement with its MVP and two-time Gold Glove winner.
"I think it took everybody by surprise because we bent over backwards and it just didn't work," said Orioles general manager Frank Wren, who was notified around 5 p.m. of Palmeiro's turnabout by agent Jim Bronner.
Palmeiro said he was within minutes of phoning Wren with his acceptance yesterday when he made a final call to Rangers general manager Doug Melvin. A resident of suburban Dallas, Palmeiro met Melvin at a local hotel and suggested he would sign a five-year deal worth less than the Orioles' offer.
Melvin contacted Rangers managing partner Tom Hicks, was quickly given authorization, and a deal was struck. Hicks was told Palmeiro was "two or three minutes" away from returning to Baltimore.
"Everything came to a head today. I feel like I've got 2 million pounds off my back. It's hard to describe my feeling. It doesn't feel like reality. It was always a dream," said Palmeiro, who played for the Rangers from 1989-93.
Likening the process to "a poker game," Palmeiro admitted during a hastily arranged news conference, "I pretty much had a deal done in Baltimore [but] the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to come back home. If I hadn't done what I did, this press conference would have been in Baltimore."
Though Palmeiro said money was not the deciding issue, several subtleties made the offers nearly identical. The Rangers' deal does not include deferred money.
Such nuances, however, held little sway with the jilted club.
"He asked us for a figure a week ago at five years. Then he said no. He gave us another figure. We hit the figure, and he signs there. I don't understand," said Wren.
"It's really not about them understanding," countered Palmeiro, who entered the off-season with a three-year, $21 million offer on the table. "It's a decision I had to make. I have to do what's right for me. I've been waiting on them for an entire year. I tried to get this thing done before spring training. I pushed and pushed and nothing got done. When it came down to crunch time, I had to make a decision. I did."
Hours after announcing the signing of Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract, the Orioles again found themselves scrambling. Wren acknowledged last night that efforts to sign free-agent third baseman Robin Ventura -- who reportedly agreed to a four-year $32 million deal with the New York Mets -- were dead, and guaranteed Cal Ripken would return to the position next season. Wren also confirmed the club has made an offer to free-agent second baseman Delino DeShields.
Yet last night's announcement in Texas shook Wren's best-laid plans while providing an end to a sometimes fractious relationship with an All-Star first baseman. Palmeiro had stunned the Orioles last January by estimating his market value at $50 million over five years. Club officials reacted angrily, suggesting Palmeiro keep his thoughts in-house, and they chose not to initiate negotiations.
The approach bothered Palmeiro, a three-time Orioles MVP, given that the club had opened negotiations with Ripken, Brady Anderson, B. J. Surhoff and Mike Mussina almost a year before their contracts expired.
The Orioles twice thought they had cemented a deal -- once after increasing their bid to $45 million over five years and again Monday when the bid was bumped to Palmeiro's 10-month-old projection of $50 million over five years.
Palmeiro said he would have accepted such an offer a month ago. "Things were different then. Circumstances changed," he said. "I had to make a decision today."
Palmeiro's defection marred what otherwise would have been a breakout day for Wren. Instead, the Orioles still must fill voids at first base, second base and right field. Wren downplayed his interest in Palmeiro's predecessor in Texas, Will Clark, who's possibly headed to Boston, but acknowledged holdover catcher Chris Hoiles represents a possibility. Should Surhoff leave Baltimore, the Orioles will have whiffed on all eight of their own free agents.
A look at where Rafael Palmeiro ranks in the Orioles all-time lists after five years with the club:
Category .. .. .. .. No. .. .. .. .. .. Rank
Home runs .. .. .. . 182 .. .. .. .. .. Fifth
RBIs .. .. .. .. ... 553 .. .. .. .. .. Seventh
Batting avg... .. . .292 .. .. .. .. .. Sixth
Extra-base hits .. . 351 .. .. .. .. .. Eighth
Pub Date: 12/02/98