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Not catching Rodriguez leaves O's empty-handed


JUPITER, Fla. - It doesn't help matters that Ivan Rodriguez was as sweet as flan about almost becoming an Oriole for the next three years.

"It was close. We were hours away," Pudge said earlier this week.

Inside the Florida Marlins' spiffy new spring training clubhouse, Rodriguez was shaking his head at the close call. The sultan of squat was very respectful toward the team that could not sign him. He was seemingly free of bitterness over his plight as Exhibit A of baseball's suspiciously bearish free-agent market.

Was this the same guy who, in a huff, threatened to go play in Japan if no major-league team would pay him as he felt he should be paid, forgetting that no Japanese team would pay him anywhere near $10 million?

The beauty of finally getting what you want is that you can be nice to the people who were trying to get you to do something you didn't want to do in the first place.

Not that Rodriguez said he felt the Orioles were taking advantage of a dead market by low-balling him with a three-year deal for $21 million. There's no need. Not when the Marlins swooped in with that one-year deal for $10 million, just as Rodriguez wanted.

"Baltimore is a great team to play for, but we didn't get a deal done," he said. "My agent was sitting in their office. They were close. I know [the Orioles] have a great stadium, great fans. They have a lot of memories there, especially with what Cal Ripken did all those years. It would have been very nice to be there, stay in the American League, but we didn't get it done."

But, but, but.

It figures that the Orioles' first two Grapefruit League games this spring come against the Marlins, a team that somehow now boasts the 1999 American League Most Valuable Player and 10-time Gold Glove winner - Rodriguez.

"My first reaction came when our general manager, Larry Beinfest, called me to say he was going to make an offer," Marlins manager Jeff Torborg said yesterday.

"I about went through the phone. He said, 'I've got an idea.' When he told me about Pudge, I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. Oh, mercy.' The night he agreed to come, Larry called me. I was in the car with my wife on my way back from dinner. Larry asked if I was sitting down. I said: 'You got him? Holy smoke!' "

Perhaps Orioles fans should file Torborg's account away under the heading of "Vicarious Pleasure," because the free-agent parade failed to make a detour through Baltimore this winter.

Orioles fans never did get that heady rush of adrenaline that comes with a bulb-flashing news conference, the gleeful anticipation of watching a former All-Star attempt to regain his stellar stature.

We're all for fiscal prudence, but even co-general manager Jim Beattie said: "We have the resources and we have an owner that would like to see us bring in a big bat."

But Beattie and Mike Flanagan said they were determined to hold their line on Rodriguez. It helped to think that they were the only suitors down on bended knee.

"I'm not sure we think in terms of Pudge anymore," Flanagan said.

"Who's to say that if David Segui, Gary Matthews and Jeff Conine stay healthy, if Jay Gibbons continues to produce the way he can, if we manufacture more runs at the top of the order, that the extra 100 RBIs we need isn't already here?"

Granted, it's next winter that Flanagan and Beattie are pointing toward. By then, they will have evaluated the team and formulated a plan about what positions to fill in the free-agent market. With Albert Belle's salary off the books, not to mention Scott Erickson's and Brook Fordyce's salaries, the Orioles will have the money, too.

Still, for the sake of entertainment this season, which also must matter, Rodriguez would have been nice.

"This season I think will be good for him," said Marlins shortstop Ozzie Guillen. "This is more for his pride, for people who called him over the hill. How can you be over the hill when you're 31? We got better when we got Pudge."

Torborg also took exception to the spate of bad press Rodriguez started to get once the Texas Rangers did not sign him to a long-term deal. The knocks did as much to diminish his value as the injuries that limited him to 91, 111 and 108 games the past three seasons. Critics say Rodriguez doesn't handle pitching staffs well. He's more interested in throwing out runners than calling the game.

"You know what that is?" Torborg said. "He's so good, you can't find anything else wrong. People would say he calls fastballs every time it looks like someone's going to run. And what's wrong with that? I liked to call for fastballs, too. Challenge runners and challenge guys to throw strikes. That stuff doesn't come from baseball people."

Rodriguez said despite the bad market and bad press, he carries no anger into this season.

"My plan was to sign a multi-year contract, but this free-agency market, it was very tough. I would never expect to sign three weeks before spring training. It was hard, but I have to focus on playing baseball," he said.

"It still feels different not to wear the Rangers uniform, but I can't do anything except focus on my new team. I'm happy. I'm OK. It was tough earlier, but right now, I'm not there. I'm here. I'm going to do my best."

Once, when Rodriguez was the 1999 AL MVP, his best was 35 homers, 113 RBIs and a .321 batting average. And to think he was so close. Hours away from being an Oriole. For people looking for a reason to follow the Orioles: ouch.

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