It's starting to look as though the Baltimore Orioles, the model franchise in the American League for 25 years, may be showing some alarmingly basic cracks in the dike.
This was a troubling week for the Orioles, despite signing .321-hitting free agent Lee Lacy on Friday.
The Orioles, usually the most composed team in baseball, look confused.
Three names make the feathers on the back of the Orioles' necks rise.
Andre Thornton. Jack Kent Cooke. Frank Robinson. A fourth may join the list: Fred Lynn.
The Orioles thought they had Thornton. Their winter plans were predicated on signing the slugger. Then, in a flash, Cleveland stole him back with one simple tactic: the Indians believed Thornton when he said his word was his bond and he'd sign with the first team that accepted his original four-year contract proposal of $4.4 million.
When a team wins the World Series one year, then has its worst finish in 17 seasons the next, it's time to shore up, whatever the cost. It's too tough to get to the top to let yourself slip in a hurry.
When you've also had the best attendance years in franchise history back to back and you've just gotten your chunk of a billion-dollar TV contract and you've also cut $2 million worth of player contracts in recent months, that's no time to get outbid for a player who perfectly fits your needs.
Yet the Orioles got beaten to the punch by Cleveland. The word "unforgivable" comes to mind. At the moment, the Orioles are better off financially than ever. Yet they lost Thornton because they dawdled in coming up with an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. Talk about being penny-wise and dollar-foolish.
In their days of scarcity, the Orioles pleaded, "We don't get into bidding contests." That won't wash now. They can't bid with Cleveland?
The Orioles will probably be "outbid" again this coming week by San Diego for Lynn.
Cubs General Manager Dallas Green said this week, "You gotta be a gambler these days. It's a high-rolling, high-risk sport. Get in or get out."
The Orioles lucked into a sweet spot this year. The players they needed were exactly the free agents available: Thornton to bat fifth, Lacy second.
Lacy will help, but if they'd accepted Thornton's first proposal instantly, they would have been a younger club than in '84 and had a lower payroll, too. Lacy and Thornton would have earned about $1.75 million.
If the Orioles get Lynn, they'll be as well off as if they had gotten Thornton. But it'll be more good luck than good management. Thornton wanted to come to Baltimore. Lynn is a Southern Californian at heart.
The Orioles seem to have a case of bad nerves these days. Owner Edward Bennett Williams kept his hands off the levers when Earl Weaver was manager and he even kept his distance in '83; but, now, he's exercising his seigniorial prerogatives.
He has the brains and experience to "meddle" in anything he chooses. The problem is that he and General Manager Hank Peters have antithetical management styles. One is laid-back and patient, the other frenetic. Either could probably run the franchise well; both of them might constitute one cook too many.
An example, please. Williams loves "stars." He wants Robinson to come back as a coach. If, heaven forfend, Joe Altobelli should need firing in '85, it wouldn't break Williams' heart to have a fiery motivator such as Robinson in the wings.
Peters has faith in Altobelli and knows how divisive a manager-in-waiting can be, even one as decent as Robinson. In the abstract, the Orioles should hire Robinson instantly; he's a plus. But if such a hiring insults Altobelli or annoys coaches who think they should be next in line, is it wise?
For a week it's been reported that Robinson has already been hired. He's said, "Have they announced it yet?" Yet Peters has denied any hiring with a clenched jaw.
Whether Robinson comes or not, there's bad blood here. Who thought the Orioles would have Yankees soap operas?
Besides too many cooks, another kind of Cooke is also an Orioles problem. No two men in sport lose more sleep thinking about each other these days than Williams and Jack Kent Cooke. These two gentlemen, who fall into the Reggie Jackson "magnitude of being me," have perfectly reasonable business goals; but their interests are in opposition.
Williams has had the Baltimore-Washington market place to himself for five years and loves it. Perhaps 20 percent of his 2 million fans come from the Washington area. His radio-TV revenues are up. The tease of moving games (or even the whole franchise) to Washington has helped him get a sweetheart stadium deal in Baltimore.
That's all fair.
Now, what does Williams see on the horizon but the completely plausible prospect of Cooke getting an expansion team in RFK Stadium?
Think 400,000 people a season will drive north to Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles if Washington has an NL team? Think 50 Orioles games a season will be on Washington TV? Think the Orioles can pay Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray $1 million a year if their revenue goes down 10 or 15 percent?
Williams has legitimate worries.
However, he also knows what will happen if, a year or two down the road, he leads a movement among AL owners to block an NL team in Washington.
Ever hear of Calvin Griffith and Bob Short? If Williams gets spotted in the middle of some such anti-D.C. coup, his name will go right there with them.
Williams doesn't have a "proper" course of action. He ought to fight a team in D.C.; but he's a Washingtonian so, in a pinch, he probably won't block Washington.
But it's a nasty spot. How much can Williams afford to spend on signing Lynn until 1989? He doesn't know. He can't know. Just as Cooke can't ultimately know if Williams will round up three AL friends in ownership and block him from owning an NL team.
Perhaps the irony of baseball these days is that, while the game is loaded with multimillionaires, the only ones who are happy are out on the field.