They say on The Street, bulls win, bears win, but pigs get slaughtered.
That's Eutaw Street.
The Baltimore Orioles' front office, haggling for the last iota of advantage, has presided over some self-destructive pig-outs in recent years. New century, same old trough.
Late last week, the Orioles had free agent pitcher Aaron Sele, an 18-game winner, all locked up for four years for $28 million--a sensible market price for a proven 29-year-old who also won 19 games in 1998. All they had to do was say: "You passed our physical exam. Sign here." Sele would've grabbed the pen.
"We would have finished the contract," Sele said yesterday.
With a starting rotation of Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Sele, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson, plus new manager Mike Hargrove, Baltimore would probably have been in playoff contention. Camden Yards would've rocked again and bygones, all those ugly bygones that hover over Eutaw Street, might've been dispelled.
Then on Friday, the Orioles informed Sele they weren't too happy with his physical. There was "moderate wear and tear" in his shoulder. Let's "tweak the deal," they said. Let's make it three years for $21 million with the fourth year "vested" at a certain level of innings.
In other words, forget those guaranteed four-year deals for $28 million to $30 million that you've walked away from in Texas and Tampa Bay to focus on Baltimore. Forget that you've burned those bridges. They've signed other pitchers. Forget that every day you wait, other teams are signing free agent pitchers (Andy Benes and Omar Olivares over the weekend) because everybody knows you're going to the Orioles. Why, it's been on the national news.
Don't listen to your doctors, who say your arm is fine. Don't listen to the Rangers' medics, who say you're okay, too. Don't listen to the Devil Rays, whose doctors think your arm is worth a $30 million investment. Nooooo, listen to the Orioles. Especially, listen to Orioles' owner Peter Angelos, who says he has his doubts. Trust him. He's not reneging. He's not stalling until you've lost leverage so he can welch on--sorry, tweak--his deal. No, he's just acting prudently.
Sele's agent, Adam Katz, says the Orioles are the most wonderful people on earth. You never heard so many compliments. He takes the Orioles at their word and on face value. No hard feelings. Just business. Though he is "perplexed."
But actions speak louder than words. And here's what actually happened:
On Monday, when the Orioles still thought they had Sele, Katz called Seattle Mariners General Manager Pat Gillick, the former Orioles GM who was disregarded until he retired. Six hours later, Gillick signed Sele for two years and $15 million.
"It was like a star falling out of the sky," said Gillick, adding pointedly that, "Those who hesitate, as they say, are lost."
Gillick had his team doctor make one quick phone call. "It took 10 minutes," said Gillick yesterday. Sele had been examined by Lewis Yocum, the Anaheim Angels' medical director and one of baseball's most respected experts. "Lew said he saw no problem," said Gillick yesterday. "In baseball, you have a window to act, sometimes a small window."
Odd, that's exactly the same phrase--"window of opportunity"--that former Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone uses to describe the difficulty in working under the Angelos system. The window of opportunity opens. Angelos waits for some negotiating advantage to fall in his lap. Or thinks he knows better than his baseball advisers do. Or plays doctor. Or simply has more pressing business to do.
So, the window shuts. On the Orioles' fingers.
Gillick is a pro's pro. He knows a window of opportunity when he sees one. He knows whom you call, whom you believe, whom you take to the bank. As for the Orioles GM, well, they don't have one, actually. They have a committee.
So, everybody is happy. The Rangers got Kenny Rogers. Tampa Bay has Juan Guzman. Sele goes to Seattle, where he has his offseason home. And the Orioles got . . .
Just what they usually get. More unsettling, destabilizing questions.
The baseball grapevine, at the general manager and agent level, has a clear view on the Sele-Orioles situation. "Everybody talked to Sele in terms of a four-year deal [for months]," said one GM yesterday. "Sele thought he has an agreement with the Orioles. Then, after the news broke, they changed and wanted a three-year deal. It looks like his people got upset with Baltimore, called Seattle and did the deal."
As matters now stand, some in baseball think the Orioles' word is as good as their bond. Until the wind changes. The Orioles disagree.
"All that is superficial, hypothetical hearsay and 95 percent erroneous," Orioles executive Syd Thrift said yesterday. "Mr. Angelos conducted all the negotiations. There's no merit to any of it. So there's no use discussing it in detail."
The Orioles had every right to give Sele a physical and interpret it any way they saw fit. But that's just the beginning of the story. Baseball is a relationship business. And the Orioles are blowing up key ones right and left.
When you fire some of the most respected and proven front office people in baseball, you have to reprove yourself--at every level--within your industry. It's not enough just to know the rules. But you also need to know how the game of Baseball Business is played. It's not about finding loopholes or seeking an edge through legalistic interpretations of your rights.
It's okay to play it cute in the early stages of a negotiation. But, in the endgame, it's essential, in the language of the dugout, to be seen as a stand-up person.
When Sele--one of baseball's top five winners over the past two seasons--had his agent inform Tampa Bay last week that they shouldn't waste any more time chasing him because he is "going to Baltimore," that is an example of being a stand-up guy. At some point, stop arguing the case. Make a decision and stick to it.
Can the Orioles do that?
Right now, the Orioles should act "stand-up" in dealing with Mike Mussina. He's a free agent after '00. Angelos conducts such negotiations personally. In the past, he's strung them out agonizingly. It worked with Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken Jr., who signed below market value to finish their careers in Baltimore. Not so with Rafael Palmeiro. Why should Angelos expect a special discount rate?
The Orioles should sign Mussina before Opening Day. Don't try to get him cheap. Just be fair. Pay a market price. He's earned it. Otherwise, if he has to pitch all season wondering whether an injury could cost him tens of millions of dollars, then new issues will arise. Issues of trust and good faith and credibility.
One day, Mussina might see Aaron Sele or Palmeiro, or Gillick or Doug Melvin, or Jon Miller or Davey Johnson, across the field. He might start thinking. And then, someday, like so many others, we might wake up and he'd be gone.