Edward Bennett Williams long has been recognized as a legal eminence and master of courtroom strategies. But in his relatively new arena as owner of the Baltimore Orioles, there is growing speculation that he has fallen into one of baseball's most seductive and steely traps: Attempting to buy a pennant.
That the second division is strewn with such folly, major league history readily attests. Yet when the Orioles finished an unsightly fifth last year, Williams was so abhorred he went defiant and joined the big boys, the Steinbrenners, the Autrys, and the Ted Turners et al. in their wild, high-rolling, big bucks shoot-out for playing talent.
A $6.8 million offer by Williams fetched Fred Lynn, a free agent outfielder, and who cares that the contract will take Lynn into his 39th year? For $2.4 million he signed another hitting outfielder, Lee Lacy, and there was another $2.4 million offer that brought in Don Aase, a relief pitcher.
Oh, Williams was a busy man last winter, but he wasn't through. Last month when the Orioles fell into fourth place, he bumped his resident manager and qualified for the Guinness book by paying new/old Manager Earl Weaver a record wage of $500,000 for five months of applied genius.
Nor was the Orioles' owner yet at rest. Last week, a few hours after his second baseman of the night lost a game by committing three misplays in one inning, Williams arranged to relieve the San Diego Padres of their $2.8 million contract with second baseman Alan Wiggins. And if Wiggins is a two-time loser in the drugs department, so what?
When he finally had put his checkbook aside, if he has, Williams had bashed into smithereens the Orioles' unique reputation as baseball's oddly successful, low payroll, up-from-the-farm operation. They were rightfully known as the "winningest team in baseball." When they weren't winning pennants, they were finishing high and mocking the big spenders.
But now in his defiance of the can't-buy-the pennant warning, there is a haunt for Williams. It was the Orioles' distressful situation, in fifth place in the East as last week ended, with their three million-plus salaries hitting all in a row and trailing the exact four teams that finished ahead of them last year. Did Williams this year buy at great expense the same fifth place they gained last year with so little outlay?
They not only have the first-place Toronto Blue Jays to beat, but also the streaking Tigers, the power Red Sox and the revivified Yankees. This is no mere two-team race. The Orioles are in a five-team contest as a club that had an 0-12 record against the Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees before beating Boston Saturday and Sunday and they have had, among other woes, a dreadful pitching problem.
Williams' new megabucks strategy was more effective before the season opened than it has been since. It revived the important season ticket sales just when Baltimore fans were soured by the awful finish of 1984 and an attendance relapse was in the making.
Williams moved in quickly to halt the hemorrhaging of fan interest and rescue the situation. He got them Lynn, who promised new excitement. And then Lacy to give them more. And an expensive relief pitcher in Aase. Just what the Orioles needed. Picture Ripken, Murray, Lynn batting one after the other with Lacy just ahead. Hooray for the Orioles. Hooray for Ed Williams. Hooray for Everything. Hoist that pennant. They stampeded to the season-ticket windows, setting a record there.
As a ticket salesman, Williams was a thumping success. Attendance is now 51,000 ahead of last year's record gate. But as an architect of a pennant- winning team, the early reports on him are disgraceful. He has assembled players -- none of whom was hitting .300 before this weekend -- that are eighth in team batting and 10th in pitching, with their 4.36 ERA the worst in memory. They may be putting a new value on home runs, inasmuch as they lead the league in that department.
The Orioles' new hope is Wiggins, who taxed the Padres' patience with his in-and-out expeditions to drug rehabilitation centers. The Padres vowed he would play no more for them and put him on the block. Williams won him, and responsibility for his $933,000-a-year contract, with a stipulation that if Wiggins returns to drugs, he forfeits one-third of the contract.
Wiggins is being rehabilitated as a second baseman at the Orioles' Rochester farm club. Later this week, he is expected to be called up to Baltimore and bring the hits and the leadoff hitter's speed-on-base so important to Weaver, the maneuverer.
Wiggins can steal 70 bases a year. Stack that up against the paltry 14 bases the Orioles have stolen all season as a team, and the need for Wiggins is evident.
A problem may be that Wiggins, who hits well enough, sometimes does not play second base well enough.
But this has not intimidated owner Williams, who this season is dedicated to his high-risk concept of baseball.