The New York Yankees moved close to completing a dramatic trade for superstar Rickey Henderson from the Oakland A's today while the Baltimore Orioles continued to struggle to sign any key free agent.
The Yankees and A's have agreed to a four-player-for-two trade, but the deal is contingent on New York signing Henderson to a long-term contract by 5 p.m. Friday.
Henderson, who has stolen 130, 108 and 100 bases in various seasons, and who might potentially be the greatest leadoff man ever, could become a free agent after the '85 season, so, of course, the Yankees want him only if they sign him for several years.
Although no other names were released in the trade, it has been learned that the Yankees would give up teen-age fast baller Jose Rijo (their best prospect despite an 2-8 rookie record), plus three promising minor leaguers (including Stan Javier and Scott Bradley). Each team is expected to throw another minor league player into the trade.
Henderson's agent, Richie Bry, wants "a five- or six-year contract" that is expected to approach $10 million.
"Do I expect any trouble signing him?" said Yankee executive Clyde King. "I haven't thought about that. Maybe I should have. It should be an interesting next two days. At first, Oakland was only going to give us 24 hours, but they were gracious enough to give us 48."
In other moves, the Texas Rangers signed free agent Cliff Johnson, and the Yankees sent catcher Rick Cerone to the Atlanta Braves for right-hander Brian Fisher, 22, who was assigned to the Class AAA Columbus Clippers.
It was the third player deal completed at the meetings, involving nine players.
The Boston Red Sox continued to dangle outfielder Jim Rice as trade bait, but he can be a free agent at the end of next season, which complicates things. So does his $750,000 contract. The Houston Astros are among the teams interested in him, but he is reported looking for a $2.4 million-a-year deal starting in 1986.
The Astros are looking for a power hitter to take advantage of outfield fences that will be 10 feet closer next season at the Astrodome.
Rice, 31, who has veto power over trades, likely would approve a move to Houston.
He has a .305 career average and has hit more than 300 home runs in 10 major league seasons.
The Red Sox are reported interested in Houston relief pitcher Frank DiPino.
"Everybody is interested in DiPino, but I don't want to trade him," General Manager Al Rosen of the Astros said.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, and to a lesser extent the Orioles, were in the Henderson hunt and the A's imposed a time limit so they still might attempt such a trade if the Yankees can't meet Henderson's demands.
But if George Steinbrenner, who wants to move Golden Glover Henderson from left field to center, can't come up with the cash, who in baseball could? It's assumed here that the trade is a fait accompli.
It is also assumed here at these winter meetings that if Baltimore doesn't sign Lee Lacy or Fred Lynn soon, Orioles General Manager Hank Peters may jump from his 28th floor suite into the Hyatt Regency lobby.
To call an Orioles free agent signing a high priority would be a comic understatement.
The Orioles cut Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry, Tom Underwood and Benny Ayala in '84, mainly to trim the payroll $2 million so they could go free agent hunting for big names for the first time.
What has happened since has not been good news for the Orioles.
On Tuesday, 99-RBI slugger Andre Thornton, who the whole baseball community was almost certain would go to Baltimore, re-signed with the Cleveland Indians.
The Orioles were numb with surprise. "We certainly didn't expect it," said Peters today. Now, Henderson, whom the Orioles daydreamed about, is almost gone.
Today, Peters said he will not keep trying to sign Bruce Sutter, who is too rich for the Orioles' blood. "I assume either St. Louis or Atlanta will sign him," Peters said.
According to sources, owner Edward Bennett Williams, who refused comment today, was shocked and annoyed at losing Thornton. Others in the Orioles family are also restive. "We're too conservative in these negotiations," longtime scout Jim Russo said. "We have to act faster."
"We have proposals out to three players -- Lacy, Lynn and (Angels reliever Don) Aase," said Peters. "I'm sure we're going to sign somebody . . . and I hope two of them." Peters also has reopened talks with Cubs pitcher Steve Trout after being approached by Trout's agent today.
The Orioles denied reports that they have already signed left fielder Lacy, 35, who hit .321 with 12 homers and 70 RBI for Pittsburgh this year. "Nobody has signed yet," Peters said. "Lacy is one we are optimistic about. We'll talk with him again tonight. You never know. Nothing is locked till it's locked. We have another meeting with Lacy's agent but the last time we had another meeting scheduled it was with Thornton and they came back to tell us he'd already signed with someone else.
"You win some. You lose some. And that one we didn't win . . . There are still people available who are more attractive for our needs that Thornton."
Pressed to explain who might be more attractive than a 33-homer slugger, Peters held his position.
The Orioles are also determined to trade for a second baseman to replace Rich Dauer, who is no longer in the club's plans as a regular. Jack Perconte of Seattle is a possibility, but the apple of every Orioles eye is Toronto's Damaso Garcia, a career .290 hitter who stole 46 bases last year but almost never draws a walk. The Blue Jays are asking for Scott McGregor or Tippy Martinez.
"We don't get in any bidding contests," said Peters again today, reiterating a long-time club policy.