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Mountains of money for Hampton

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DALLAS - Free-agent pitcher Mike Hampton officially became the richest player in baseball yesterday, and the record contract he signed with the Colorado Rockies was even bigger than previously reported.

The eight-year deal, originally believed to be worth $121 million, is actually worth $123.8 million, and includes a club option for a ninth year (2009) that would pay Hampton $20 million.

For the moment, it is the industry's largest total-cash guarantee, but superstar free agents Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez both could break that record in the next 10 days.

Hampton insisted that it wasn't about the money, even though the deal left him behind only Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Carlos Delgado ($17 million) in terms of average annual salary.

"I feel the decision that I made was one that my family is going to be happy with," Hampton said yesterday during a news conference at the baseball winter meetings. "I've got a 5-year-old boy starting school next year. I wanted a place I could move my family to that would give him the stability he deserves."

Agent Mark Rogers indicated that all of the four teams that were involved in the bidding at the end were offering enough money to make the financial end of the decision almost inconsequential. Hampton said he chose Colorado based on quality-of-life issues and the presentation made by the Rockies.

"They had a clear vision and it's only getting better," he said. "They stuck to their word; they were honest and the presentation that they had was the best. I told my agent, I'm going to be a Colorado Rockie. Just make the best deal you can."

Sandy Alderson, an executive vice president in the commissioner's office, didn't appreciate Hampton's claim that he made the decision because of family.

"The spin to which that deal was subjected, I think, was just an embarrassment," Alderson said. "I don't want to hear about the Wheat Ridge [Colo.] school system."

Alderson, who ripped the Dodgers two years ago for giving Kevin Brown a $105 million, seven-year deal, said it was another instance of a team giving in to a player. "There is a benefit to saying no from time to time," Alderson said.

In a sense, the deal said more about the Rockies organization than it did about the veteran left-hander. The club signed former Arundel High star Denny Neagle to a five-year, $51.5 million contract earlier in the week and has not entirely ruled out another big-money signing.

Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd has moved decisively since he took over at the end of the 1999 season. He unloaded a big chunk of the roster last winter and began remaking the club as a more versatile, more balanced division hopeful. The club remained in contention for much of the 2000 season, but faded down the stretch and finished 82-80.

Now, the second phase of that rebuilding effort has shored up a starting rotation that now includes four solid left-handed pitchers - Hampton, Neagle, Brian Bohanon and Ron Villone. All five of the club's projected starters (right-hander Pedro Astacio is the other) won at least 10 games last year.

"We have an organization with a lot of good things going for it," said O'Dowd. "The desire to build a championship team in Colorado should not be doubted.

"We added a horse ... a No. 1 starter for our rotation. He is one of the toughest competitors in the game. We think he likes the the challenges of pitching in Coors Field."

Coors Field may be the biggest challenge of Hampton's career. The thin mountain air has made Denver a very forbidding place for otherwise successful pitchers. Former Astros teammate Darryl Kile went to Colorado after an impressive 1997 season with the Astros and severely damaged his reputation as a premier starter.

"I think you can pitch in Coors Field," said Hampton, who has won four of five career starts at Coors, but his 6.48 ERA in Denver is nearly twice his overall career mark (3.44). "There is no doubt it is the toughest place to pitch. It's going to be a true test. It's going to make me a better pitcher because you can't lapse mentally."

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