Clock keeps team, Thrift on the spot


Syd Thrift realizes he's on The Spot. He hears it nightly on the radio, reads it whenever he picks up the paper, winces at it when the harsh words sometimes tumble from the Camden Yards stands.

The two most significant weeks of the Orioles season have arrived, and Thrift senses rampant anticipation for change that will be difficult to accomplish.

"I've been on the spot my whole life," the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations said before Friday night's game against the Atlanta Braves. "I'm used to being on the spot. I don't mind being on the spot."

As of tomorrow, 14 shopping days remain before the July 31 waiver deadline arrives. After that date, teams will find it exponentially more difficult to trade impact players, particularly pitchers.

It is one thing to negotiate Scott Erickson out of his no-trade clause, another to avoid the Toronto Blue Jays claiming him off waivers before a trade can be made with the Boston Red Sox.

"If these next two weeks aren't critical, then I've wasted a heck of a lot of time," said Thrift, who has doggedly tried to develop a market for much of the team's clubhouse.

Thrift called "absurd" allegations that the Orioles have no plan and that they are paralyzed by the involvement of majority owner Peter Angelos. He names a rival general manager who might have made such an allegation but ends the sentence by discrediting it.

Perceptions are cheap, Thrift says, and in some cases unfounded. He says the team hasn't closed the door on retaining catcher Charles Johnson.

Nor does he deny Johnson remains in play with several contenders, the most notable believed to be the St. Louis Cardinals.

If it's true that the Orioles have tried to restart negotiations with their pending free-agent catcher, however, Johnson says he is unaware of it.

Shortstop Mike Bordick is coveted by several contenders, the Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets included.

"But when you've got an All-Star performer, and other clubs are only willing to offer players we consider fringe prospects, that's not something you consider," Thrift said. "That's nothing at all."

Thrift suggests he is handicapped by the mistakes of previous administrations and believes the spate of no-trade clauses granted this team will suppress the urge to give similar deals in the future.

Thrift also winces at the team's absence of youth and recalls the last trade made during the Pat Gillick regime: "I would not have traded Jeffrey Hammonds for Willie Greene. No way. And you can write that," he said.

Hammonds, of course, made this year's National League All-Star team. Greene was eventually released by the Orioles and now serves with the Chicago Cubs.

Thrift also finds himself limited by bulky contracts. Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz is not fond of assuming long-term deals, especially when he might be expected to buy a player out of a no-trade clause. Thrift insists he never had a chance to acquire left-hander Bruce Chen, who went to the Philadelphia Phillies last Wednesday for Andy Ashby.

"You don't trade players; you trade contracts," Thrift said. "When you're talking about players with $4 million, $5 million, $6 million contracts, those are difficult things to make happen. Teams have become very cost-conscious, it appears. And you can't force a deal to happen."

Thrift acknowledges that virtually every trade-eligible player is in play. But he hastens to add that no deal will be made out of desperation or to appease the media or an impatient fan base.

"I can't do that," he said. "I have to do what I know to be right."

Could the Orioles have traded left fielder B. J. Surhoff to the New York Yankees for the same package that brought the defending World Series champions Cleveland Indians left fielder David Justice? Absolutely.

The Indians were frantic to dump Justice's $7 million salary and some of his moody baggage. The Yankees would have preferred Surhoff, a more complete player and a better fit within their clubhouse, but they found Thrift and Angelos hardly enamored of outfielder Ricky Ledee, the centerpiece of New York's offer.

Thrift classified Ledee as "a fourth outfielder" and could not justify parting with "a consistent player of high caliber."

"Would we have made that deal? No way," Thrift said.

Thrift has received word from the agents for Brady Anderson and Erickson that both players would accept the right trade. For Anderson, that likely means a Southern California destination. For Erickson, it could mean the San Francisco Giants or Boston Red Sox.

Less than two weeks ago, Angelos said there will be no "fire sale," no purge of veterans for prospects similar to what the Chicago White Sox did in July 1997. Thrift seconds the motion, which may or may not complicate the club's efforts to get younger, faster and more exciting by season's end.

Regarding any trade involving Erickson, Thrift said, "We'd have to get a major-league or Triple-A pitcher who could perform here this year. We're not interested in somebody else's Single-A or Double-A arms who our scouts may or may not have a high opinion of. Regardless, whoever we'd get probably wouldn't pitch as well right away as Scott would. We know that."

Thrift also knows what the calendar says. It tells him what he hears on the radio, what he reads as punishment whenever he picks up a paper or can't escape when some leather-lung in the club level leans over to blast away. He's on The Spot.

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