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Diminished options up O's ante Club forced to take plunge into changing market


The Orioles resisted as long as they could. Owner Peter Angelos worked hard to keep a lid on individual salaries until the club was left with only two choices:

Pay the piper or prepare for another long, discouraging summer.

So the Orioles signed perennial MVP candidate Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract, the $13 million average annual salary nearly twice what the club established as an unwritten salary standard when it signed Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina and Brady Anderson to contract extensions worth about $7 million per year.

The decision was not that difficult, especially when it became apparent that the World Series champion New York Yankees were going to keep their record-setting 1998 roster largely intact.

"The market conditions accelerated with the [New York Mets'] signing of Mike Piazza and the subsequent negotiating demands of the best players in the game," said Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss. "For the Orioles to remain competitive, we had to do what was necessary to compete in that market."

The club had shown a willingness to push into new economic territory with its unsuccessful, five-year, $40 million bid for free-agent outfielder Brian Jordan and a large five-year offer to first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, but Angelos indicated earlier this year that he preferred to spread the team's substantial wealth around rather than make a huge commitment to one top-name player.

That may have been the original plan, but the club's diminishing options in the free-agent market made it imperative that the Orioles sign the last available impact offensive player.

Belle, for all of the personal baggage he carries from his years with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox, might be the most dangerous hitter in the game. He batted .328 with 49 home runs and 152 RBIs last year.

"You look at the division we play in, with the Yankees, Boston and ourselves -- three big-market ballclubs -- and you're trying to compete in that division," said general manager Frank Wren. "You've got to do what you can."

Still, the signing represents a decided shift in economic philosophy for the Orioles, who had the highest payroll in baseball last season, but have managed to keep individual salaries within a specific range because of the desire of several veteran players to remain in Baltimore. There were five players on the club last year who made between $6 million and $7 million (including deferred money).

There was even talk of an unwritten "Cal Ripken salary cap" that kept the club from giving anyone significantly more than the club's most revered player, a concept that gained some credibility when the Orioles started the serious bidding for Palmeiro with a three-year, $21 million offer.

It became a nonissue when Piazza signed a seven-year deal worth $13 million per year and other top-name players -- Bernie Williams and Mo Vaughn -- rode his coattails to huge contracts.

Even with Belle likely to account for more than a sixth of next year's payroll, Foss said the Orioles expect to keep the total outlay for salaries in the range of $70 million to $75 million, which represents a relatively modest increase over last year's record total.

"The only thing constant is change," said Syd Thrift, special assistant to Wren. "You've got to be flexible in today's world. No one has been able to forecast the market in baseball. We really needed a right-handed hitter, and this guy is the premier right-handed hitter in baseball."

Give Angelos credit. He could have clung stubbornly to his original financial blueprint, but he chose instead to focus on his oft-reiterated pledge to spend whatever it takes to keep the Orioles in the playoff picture.

The size of the Belle deal, however, figures to have an impact on the future relationship between the club and its veteran players. The Orioles were able to persuade Mussina to take less than full-market value to maintain his career-long relationship with the organization and remain close to his Pennsylvania home. The same dynamic was at work to a lesser extent in negotiations with Ripken and Anderson.

Presumably, it will be more difficult to trade on such loyalty in the aftermath of the Belle contract.

"I don't think that's specific to the Orioles," Foss said. "That affects the whole industry. I think what those guys signed for was in line with the market at the time."

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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