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Once again, O's beat Johnson; Arbitration case leads catcher to 'question future in Baltimore'


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles won an arbitration case but may have lost a catcher yesterday.

A three-man panel ruled in the team's favor by assigning Charles Johnson a $4.6 million salary rather than his $5.1 million request for this season. Reached last night at his Plantation, Fla., home, Johnson restated that the ordeal tells him the 2000 season will be his last with the club.

"My feelings really haven't changed: Winning or losing wasn't as meaningful as me having to go to arbitration in the first place. I feel it shouldn't have gone that far," Johnson said.

The verdict marked the second time in as many seasons that the Orioles have beaten Johnson at a hearing. Johnson still receives a 25 percent raise over his $3.6 million salary for the '99 season, in which he batted .251 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs and had a 39.8 percent success rate against opposing base stealers.

The Orioles are left with an extra $500,000 but also a severely bruised relationship.

"When it ended I went over and shook hands with Charles. I told him I was looking forward to the season," vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said. "It's not personal."

Johnson said last night he recognizes the Orioles' hard-line stance as a business decision but doesn't see how a team unwilling to halve a $500,000 difference could be serious about offering a five-year contract, which the four-time Gold Glove winner insists he is "locked in on" as a baseline for negotiations.

"It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out if they take me to arbitration two years in a row and we can't work anything out. then you really have to question my future in Baltimore," he said. "As a player, I move, I keep playing, I enjoy the season, I try to win. That's why I play."

The win extended an undefeated run for Orioles general counsel Russell Smouse. The club hasn't lost an arbitration case since Arthur Rhodes in 1995.

No previous hearing may equal the potential fallout of this one. Johnson said he would have accepted a compromise had the Orioles offered to split the difference between the sides' bids. That proposal was never made.

"We felt we really made an effort to offer a number that was fair and reasonable," Thrift said. "That's why we decided [on this course]."

Johnson attended Friday's hearing and thought it less contentious than last year's, when the Orioles' win was far more painful. Then a panel assigned Johnson a $3.6 million bid rather than a $5.1 million proposal. The club then abstained from any discussion regarding a long-term deal last season, a first sign that the catcher's future likely would take him elsewhere.

"It's nothing personal against Syd Thrift or anybody else," said Johnson, among a select few players who have gone to an arbitration hearing three straight years. "I've shaken [Florida Marlins GM] Dave Dombrowski's hand. I've shaken [former Orioles GM] Frank Wren's hand after a hearing. I've never taken it personally.

"You've got to see these guys all year. I've just got to understand that maybe they don't want me."

Thrift reiterated the Orioles' interest in a three-year deal after Friday's four-hour hearing. However, Johnson said he and agent Scott Boras "pretty much squashed" the discussion before finances were introduced.

Asked if the club planned to intensify its efforts to sign Johnson, Thrift said, "I think we'll let this settle down for a few days."

Johnson even lapsed into the past tense when discussing his tenure with the club. He said his biggest regret about leaving would be a fan base that immediately embraced him. "I've never seen a team that has fans that follow them like the people in Baltimore. I have heard there's a lot of sentiment from them for keeping me. You just hate to see something like this happen," he said.

"I put it away because I know next year I'll be a free agent. Knowing it wasn't able to be worked out. I really don't see us having a long-term relationship."

Thrift last month endorsed the possibility of catching prospect Jayson Werth ascending to Baltimore next season; however, the 21-year-old Werth has never played above Double-A Bowie and is still considered a developing talent.

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