When the Orioles' top executives started making phone calls yesterday at the start of the money-spending free-agent season, this is what they had to combat: Nine straight losing seasons. A 92-loss 2006 campaign during which attendance at Camden Yards reached an all-time low. A clubhouse dogged by steroid allegations. And a gap behind the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays that seemingly is getting wider.
Selling a major league player on wanting to be a Baltimore Oriole has rarely been this difficult.
"The perception is 92 losses. That means you have a long way to go," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "But the reality is, in our opinion and in the opinion of a lot of people in baseball, is that we have a lot of good things going on here. We think we can close the gap here a lot quicker than many of the so-called pundits think we can, but we need to attract premium players."
Duquette did acknowledge that nearly a decade of losing can make for a tough sell, though the organization insists it has enough in its favor. The Orioles will ask some of their most popular players to make calls on the front office's behalf. They will circulate a book to some of their targets on the pluses of the city, highlighting everything from area schools to Johns Hopkins Hospital. They'll also put out other material to promote the direction of the club.
"We are going to try to do whatever we need to do," Duquette said. "If that means bring them here and wine and dine them, we'll do it. If that means players calling them, we'll do it. If it means going to visit them, we'll do it. We have to do whatever it is going to take."
'Guys want to win'
That challenge could be heightened this year as baseball's healthy economic state has left many teams with money to spend in free agency. The pool of available players is not deep, and the top free agents will be swooned over by a long list of teams. All signs point to the Orioles being active bidders during the next couple of months, but will any of the upper-tier free agents accept club owner Peter Angelos' money?
It would have been a ridiculous question to pose not too long ago. After all, the Orioles are a franchise steeped in tradition, have a ballpark that is still one of the crown jewels in the sport and play in a division that has some of baseball's most celebrated players.
However, after watching superstars such as Vladimir Guerrero, Paul Konerko and Carlos Delgado spurn Orioles offers and head elsewhere in recent offseasons and Pat Burrell and Phil Nevin refuse to drop no-trade clauses to come to Baltimore, it does not seem so ridiculous to ask anymore.
The Orioles are consistently mentioned by reporters and agents at this time of year as potential suitors because they have two things: needs and money to spend. But when it comes to getting the player, the club has fallen short, and in some cases, its interest has been used by free agents to get more money from another team.
"I talk to a lot of players and they love the city, the stadium obviously," longtime Oriole Jay Gibbons said last month. "We are a little bit behind the eight ball in our division. Guys want to win. Guys want to know the team's committed to winning."
Said Orioles second baseball Brian Roberts, also interviewed last month: "I would like to think that guys would still like to come here, but we have to be realistic and know who we are competing against."
The comments by Roberts and Gibbons were echoed by two agents, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they regularly deal with the club. Both agents said the feeling in the industry is that the Orioles are heading in the right direction with a nucleus featuring a solid mix of veterans and a talented group of young pitchers.
However, the agents said players also recognize whom the Orioles have to compete against in the American League East, and that makes it tougher to believe the club's recruiting pitch that they are close to turning it around. It also doesn't help that the organization's on- and off-the-field problems have made them a punching bag for media outlets everywhere.
"Unfortunately, it takes a little longer to get rid of that reputation," one agent said. "Everybody knows the steps that they are taking, but they are in the AL East and that's the problem. They just have to have the opportunity to see [their plan] through. I still think they might be a year or two away from that. But I have a couple of [free agents] and their conception is, 'Why wouldn't I consider Baltimore?' "
Two winning bids
Another agent acknowledged that his clients would consider playing in Baltimore, but the Orioles would likely have to overpay, especially if some of the other bidders are playoff-caliber teams.
Orioles executives dispute the theory that standout players don't want to sign with the organization, pointing to the acquisition of Miguel Tejada, a former league Most Valuable Player, and Ramon Hernandez, one of the league's most productive catchers.
"I don't see anybody turning a deaf ear to us," executive vice president Mike Flanagan said.
It is important to point out that the Orioles significantly outbid others for Tejada, and that their main competitors (the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners) were not playoff teams at the time. And in Hernandez's case last offseason, some of the teams originally interested in signing a catcher filled their needs through a trade, leaving the Orioles with less competition.
"There is a level of a player that is just not going to come here. You just have to be flat-out [honest] about that," Duquette said. "But it's like that with every town. I also think there is a certain level of player in the free-agent market that will relish coming to this town and playing in this division."