Teixeira a test for Orioles, but can they make grade with fans?

The Baltimore Sun

Time is running short for Mark Teixeira. If he doesn't sign a new contract by Christmas, he won't be able to buy his wife that small Caribbean country he promised her or bail out the automakers.

Pardon the sarcasm - which isn't directed personally at the young man at the focus of this year's biggest free-agent free-for-all - but the situation has been so blown out of proportion that it's impossible to know what to believe at this point.

Thursday night, news broke that Boston Red Sox owner John Henry and his management team were en route to Texas to meet face-to-face with Teixeira and agent Scott Boras, and everyone just naturally assumed the well-heeled Red Sox were ready to blow the rest of the bidders out of the auction. Four hours later, Henry sent an e-mail to several media outlets saying that - based on the size of the other bids - the Sox were no longer "a factor" in the four-way Teixeira negotiations.

Two days earlier, ESPN's Karl Ravech reported as breaking news that a source was saying Teixeira has "an enormous attraction to the Orioles" in the same 24-hour period that ESPN's Buster Olney quoted sources indicating the Orioles were all but out of the running and ESPN's Peter Gammons reported that the thing would probably come down to the Red Sox or Washington Nationals. The only one of the Teixeira suitors who wasn't prominent in that flurry of newsy speculation was the Los Angeles Angels, who might have emerged as the favorite after Thursday night's machinations.

Now, I have to admit this is great fun if you're a baseball blogger - and who isn't these days? - but I've noticed on my blog (bookmark The Schmuck Stops Here at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog at your very next opportunity) that it has started to stress out a lot of baseball fans in the Baltimore area. This is a fairly provincial place, and the possibility of a Severna Park kid coming back to save the Orioles has generated a lot of passion and understandable frustration, not to mention more e-mail and blog comments than a normal human being can be expected to answer.

Tex has achieved a rare duality, becoming a symbol of all that could be right and all that is wrong with the Orioles franchise. Many fans see him as a Ripkenesque figure who will lift the team out of its 11-year malaise and accelerate Andy MacPhail's rebuilding program. Some are skeptical of the good effect of spending such a huge chunk of the payroll on one player, but that hasn't kept the vast majority of the team's most vocal followers from turning the Tex quest into a litmus test for the new front office.

Here it is in a nutshell: If the Orioles defy the odds and win the Teixeira derby, then maybe the team really has changed direction under MacPhail and maybe it's time to start coming back to the ballpark after a decade of declining attendance. If the Orioles get outbid - no matter how big the winning bid turns out to be - then it's the same old, same old. The Orioles weren't really serious and stayed on the fringe of the bidding only for public relations purposes.

It's not my money, but I've got to go with the fans on this one. Teixeira presents the Orioles with a rare opportunity to alter public opinion and stem the potentially ruinous decline in gate revenue. If that means offering a few million extra to make his decision tougher, they need to do that. They've reduced the payroll over the past few years, ostensibly to prepare for this very opportunity, so they need to compete, and the Red Sox apparently have left them an opening to do just that. I'm not talking about giving Boras a blank check or bidding blindly against one of his mystery teams, but a solid front office knows how to gauge these things and make a legitimate play.

Maybe that's just what's going to happen, though the national consensus seems to be that the Red Sox were just posturing Thursday night and are still the team to beat. The only thing certain is that Tex is going to be a very rich guy very soon. Everything else seems to be subject to daily interpretation, but the basic issues remain unchanged.

No one really knows whether Teixeira is putting the higher premium on playing for a winner or playing close to home. If it is about the ring, he might soon be headed back to the Angels, who now are believed or rumored (pick one) to be the highest bidder. If he is intent on returning to the East Coast, then he'll have to reel the Red Sox back in or choose between the Orioles and Nationals. If he just wants the most money, well, who really knows?

The fans in Baltimore are understandably cynical after all they've been through, but I think it's fair to say the Orioles are not just in it for the public relations. There isn't an ounce of good PR to be gotten from any scenario that doesn't put Teixeira in the Orioles' lineup next season. If they come up short, it won't matter how much or little they offered at the end. They will have once again met the diminished expectations of their diminishing fan base.

No sugarcoating that.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Fridays and Saturdays.

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