Well, it just goes to show that if you apply enough heat, even the stoutest principle will bend. Consider, for example, the Baltimore Orioles, now training in Miami with swallowed pride. In years past, when the Orioles required, say, a centerfielder, they would trot down to one of their farms and pluck a homegrown product. They were, as most farm-system folks tend to be, even a little preachy about never spending big money for what you can grow yourself. So what happened this past winter? Why, the gentlemen farmers not only entered the player free-agent market, they fairly burst into it with a loud and unseemly rattling of coin. Before you could say George Steinbrenner, they had bought a centerfielder, Fred Lynn ($6.8 million for five years), a relief pitcher, Don Aase ($2.4 million for four years) and a rightfielder, Lee Lacy ($2.2 million for four years). Whatever happened to all that high-minded talk about self-reliance? Alas, it was a matter of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And the Orioles, who finished fifth in the unforgiving American League East last year, weren't beating 'em.
The wanton spending frankly astonished some of the team's old guard. "I was surprised, with the reputation this club has, that it happened," said catcher Rick Dempsey after a Miami workout last week. "We always used to stand pat and do pretty well, but I think we got to the point where there was depleted production. We had too many players reach the end at once [i.e., Ken Singleton, Al Bumbry and Jim Palmer]. When I first read that [we'd signed] Fred Lynn and Lee Lacy, I had a surge of adrenaline. We could score a thousand runs this year. It was a surprise, but a welcome surprise."
"We were always so proud that we could dip into the organization when we had to," said shortstop Cal Ripken, a homegrown boy himself. "But we had places we had to fill immediately. It doesn't mean there's a trend. We were just forced to do it out of necessity."
"This represents not so much a change in philosophy as a chance to improve our ball club right now," says Oriole general manager Hank Peters, explaining why a team that had brought in only five inexpensive free agents in the eight years of the reentry draft should now open its wallet so wide. "When we evaluated our needs after the '84 season, we found some answers in the reentry system. We needed more offense. We didn't have people on base at the top of the lineup where Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray could drive them in, and we didn't have a hitter batting behind Murray who could protect him from being walked so often. We had trouble spots in the outfield. We could've stayed with our young people in each of these spots, but we're in a highly competitive division, and we had to ask ourselves if we could win playing unestablished people. Our competitors all helped themselves over the winter and all with established players. We still believe in homegrown talent, but our competitors cause us to think a little differently."
March 18, 1985
It's been a big year for rethinking. And for significant comings and goings, either through trades or free agency. Rarely have so many name players changed, as they say in the Olympics, their venues. In addition to Baltimore's new faces and the stars pictured on pages 32 and 33, there are some other changes of note. Jack Clark, for eight years the Giants' star outfielder and malcontent, was traded to the Cardinals. Heavy-hitting George Hendrick, who didn't speak to reporters in St. Louis, is now not speaking to them in Pittsburgh. And outfielder Steve Kemp also resides in Pittsburgh after two seasons with the Yankees. The modern superstar, it appears, is a wayward and restless wind.
In ponying up big bucks for their mercenaries, Peters and the Orioles have also taken a considerable gamble. Lynn, the featured acquisition, is 33 and has a voluminous medical history. In his four years with the California Angels, his most recent employers, he had two knee operations, a cracked rib and strains and sprains in the groin and wrist. He played in only 76 games in 1981 and in 117 in '83. Last year, however, Lynn was remarkably free of physical complaints, and he played in 142 games, the most since 1979, when he appeared in 147 for the Red Sox. Despite the frequent absences, he has averaged 22 homers and 80 RBIs over the last three seasons. Pretty good figures for the No. 5 hitter that the Orioles are expecting Lynn to become.
"The injuries he's suffered have been because he is an aggressive player," says Peters. "He's worked hard this winter and is in great condition. And at 33 we don't consider him old, the way careers are going today." "There is not a manager in baseball who wouldn't want a Fred Lynn," says the Orioles' manager, Joe Altobelli.
Aase, who is 30 and, like Lynn, another Angel who has flown the coop, could be an even bigger risk. He went on the disabled list in July '82 with an elbow that "felt like it was on fire." On Oct. 18 of that year, Dr. Lewis Yocum transplanted a tendon from Aase's left wrist to replace a ligament in his right elbow—the same type of operation that renewed Tommy John in 1974. Aase did not so much as lift a baseball for the next nine months, and he didn't throw one in a game for another nine. He made his first major league appearance in a year and 11 months last June 18 in Anaheim against the Texas Rangers. Remarkably, he finished the season with a 4-1 won-lost record, eight saves and a 1.62 earned run average in 23 games and 39 innings. Although he didn't pitch on successive days at any time, the Orioles were nevertheless convinced he had returned to the form that made him the Angels' top reliever four years ago.
If Aase is indeed back, he can spell the Orioles' often overworked late-inning man, Tippy Martinez, who last year suffered from a tired arm and sore shoulder. Martinez is happy to have him. "Don will make it easier for me," he says. Aase will also allow Sammy Stewart to move to middle-inning relief, where Peters says he is more effective. As for Aase, Altobelli says, "He threw the ball so well last year he could give us the best bullpen in the American League."
Lacy is 35—"a young 35," says Peters, predictably, even though Lacy turns 36 next month—and until last year in Pittsburgh he had never played as a regular. It was the first season of his 13-year career that he had achieved 502 plate appearances, the minimum number for eligibility as a batting champion. Lacy made the most of it. His .321 average was second only to Tony Gwynn's .351 in the National League. It was also the fourth time in the last five years and the third in succession that he had hit better than .300. And he drove in 70 runs, even though frequently batting second in the lineup. He led National League outfielders with a .996 fielding percentage, and he stole 21 bases, giving him 140 steals for his six years as a Pirate. Lacy, a career utility man until last year, has played every position but pitcher, catcher and first base. Altobelli wants to bat him second, put him in right and "leave him out there every day."
Lynn is similarly set in center, a position shared a year ago by the then 37-year-old Bumbry and John Shelby. But Shelby, 11 years Bumbry's junior, hit only .209 in 128 games. Fragile Freddy, as he has been unkindly called, looks lean at 185 pounds, and eager. He has large, dark, almost childlike eyes and a deceptively relaxed manner that, because he is from Southern California, causes his critics to deem him "laid back."
Lynn is actually an intensely private and competitive person who bristles at the merest suggestion that he is, in any way, a malingerer. "I'm an aggressive outfielder," he says. "I can't be any other way. I wouldn't be the player I am if I were more cautious. I'm not going to stop making the effort, hitting the fences, diving for balls. If I don't make the plays, somebody else will. I didn't have any injuries last year. Mac [then Angels manager John McNamara] kept me out of games early in the season. It was not a matter of what I wanted. He just wanted to keep the veterans healthy for later in the year. I found it hard to maintain any continuity in my game that way. It's like losing a golf swing. It's tough regaining it. When I started playing regularly, I started hitting."
The big contract was admittedly the attraction in Baltimore, but, Lynn protests, "Everybody seemed to think that because I winter there, I wanted to play only in California. That was not my feeling at all. I enjoy playing in the East. I started in Boston, after all. I just want to be part of a winning team. My major goal is to be on a world championship team."
Aase, a large walrus-mustached man, is overjoyed to be on a pitching staff as strong as the Orioles'. He says of his comeback, "I had to get the negatives out of my mind. I talked about it quite a bit with Tommy John [his teammate on the Angels]. Even though we were different pitchers—I'm a power pitcher, he's a finesse type—it helped. I had to be really sure in my mind that I could do it. I think I proved to myself and others last year that I'm sound again. To come back in midseason with no spring training and in the middle of a pennant race was, well, very satisfying."
The most notably confident of the three newcomers is Lacy, the perennial irregular. "I should've been playing regularly since 1978 [when he was with the Dodgers]," he says matter-of-factly and without resentment. "Increase my playing time and I'll get the recognition. We've got guys here who know how to win. With this team I should score a hundred runs with no sweat. This is a contending team which had the need for a type of player like myself—a second-place hitter, a line-drive hitter who will put the ball in play. I tell you, I've taken care of myself. I've never had a lot of wear and tear on my body. I've done the best I could with what I had. I just kept working at my game."
Batting second that day in an intra-squad game at Miami Stadium, Lacy drove leadoff hitter Shelby home with a single in the first inning. Aase pitched the last two innings for the opposing team and did not allow a run. But the play of the day, in a literal and symbolic sense, was Lynn's. In the second inning, Al Pardo, a rookie catching prospect, lined a fastball deep into the left centerfield gap. Lynn chased it with his back to the infield. With impeccable timing, he leaped high just as the ball seemed to rise over his head. He came down with it as the small crowd and players on both sides cheered him. It was a brilliant catch, the sort the Orioles hope and trust their new centerfielder will make all year.
But the really significant thing about it was that the man who hit the ball, Pardo, represented, at age 22, the old Orioles. Those were the Orioles who nurtured their youngsters and then, when the need arose, introduced them to a waiting world. Lynn, 11 years older, is a new Oriole, a stranger brought in from the outside. Pardo, the farm product, must wait his turn. In Baltimore these days, the future has more immediacy. And that's where Lynn and his companion outsiders come into play. After that, well, how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?