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With other teams talking austerity in anticipation of decreased TV revenues, the Baltimore Orioles’ new ownership says its budget is going up, enabling the team to gluttonize at the free agent smorgasbord. Last year, the menu included Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux, Kirby Puckett, Ruben Sierra, Paul Molitor, and Doug Drabek. But this year, the free agent table is as appealing as an all-you-can-eat aspirin bar.

The big names out there—Rickey Henderson, Lee Smith, and even ex-Orioles Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray (a 100-RBI man last year)—got their big names by being good over a lot of years, but their best days are behind them. That may also be true of the free agents at the top of the 1993 class, first basemen Will Clark and RafaelPalmeiro.

The current free agent system did not descend from Mount Sinai but was negotiated between the players and owners. The owners wanted to avoid free agency completely, and they succeeded for nearly a century. They retained permanent rights to their players by inserting an automatic one-year renewal clause in contracts, which they called the reserve clause, and claimed that the reserve clause carried over with each renewal, making a player property of his team for as long as it wanted him. But in 1976, an arbitrator ruled that one year meant one year, and the owners decided that they were ready to talk.

Owners still wanted to keep players forever, but their minimum demand was an interval long enough to see their investment in minor-league development bear major-league fruit. The players’ union leadership also had reasons for allowing owners to keep players for some length of time, and came up with a system whose basics have remained relatively unchanged since 1976.

Whether by happy accident or sinister design, six years fit each side’s negotiating interest. Research shows players generally have their prime seasons between ages 26 and 29. Players rarely come to the majors before age 23, and the six-year requirement means six full seasons, so a rookie who spends two weeks in the minors during one of his early years must wait until the end of his seventh season for free agency. Clubs also hedge their bets by trying to tie up players a year or two beyond the six-year minimum.

With six years of major-league service required prior to free agency, players are generally past their prime when they reach the free agent market, which explains why so many recipients of big money deals wind up as disappointments. It’s not sloth or complacency but Father Time that deters free agents from matching prior performance.

From the players’ point of view, it’s best to have an established track record before becoming a free agent to maximize one’s value in the market. Owners aren’t going to pay for numbers a player has yet to produce. There’s no assurance a player will ever produce his past numbers again, but hey, nothing in life is guaranteed, and it’s more logical to pay for something a player has done rather than something he’s never done. Everybody wins, except for the team paying the price for the free agent’s best years and getting something less.

It’s also in the players’ interest to limit free agency. In 1976, when the reserve clause was struck, Oakland Athletics owner Charles O. Finley suggested that the owners let every player be a free agent every year, to increase the supply of available players and presumably keep prices down. For many players, free agency would be a synonym for unemployment. The best starting pitcher on the free agent market after the 1990 season was Danny Darwin, who had put together one good half-season as a starter in his last eight. But as the top commodity in that season’s market, he got top dollar. In this round, Sid Fernandez, Tim Belcher, and Mark Gubicza figure to benefit from the market’s peculiarities.

Clark and Palmeiro, teammates at Mississippi State University and both going on 30, would probably attract interest in any market. The Orioles need a first baseman for run production, and, as a bonus, both bat left-handed.

Clark, the San Francisco Giants’ first baseman for the last eight seasons, is the hottest free agent property, but a must-to-avoid for the Orioles. Will the Thrill, as he calls himself, is an obnoxious boob who wants to be loved and wants to be the big star. The Orioles need vocal leadership in their clubhouse, but Clark is too self-centered to fit that task. He might offend Cal Ripken, and he’d undoubtedly annoy plenty of other players and fans.

Aside from the personalities and chemistry, Clark is a line-drive hitter, not a true power hitter, having hit 30 home runs once in eight seasons. He will also undoubtedly need time to adjust to a new league, complaining all the way about how American League pitchers won’t throw him a fastball. Orioles fans and decision makers should remember well the previous first-base import from the National League—Glenn Davis, who came over with far superior power credentials. He also came over with a reputation fordurability, even though he’d been injured the year before. That’s Clark’s tale as well, although he was injured and had a lousy year, too, in 1993.

Palmeiro looked like a line-drive hitter when he came up with the Chicago Cubs and played left field. The Cubs had another left-handed line-drive hitter at first, Mark Grace, and didn’t want both filling power positions in their lineup. So they traded Palmeiro to Texas, where his annual home run numbers read 8, 14, 26, 22, 37. Counting on 30 homers for this guy is like expecting snow next April because we had it last April.

Though new owner Peter Angelos desperately wants to make a free agent splash, there are nothing but pebbles available to stir the pool. General Manager-turned-grand poobah Roland Hemond and staff are wisely exploring the trade market, where better players are available. Other teams are anxious to shed big salaries, current or anticipated through arbitration.

Hemond should recall how his mentor Bill Veeck asked the Yankees for second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss back in 1946 and wound up with Hall of Famer Joe Gordon. Talk to the Atlanta Braves about prospect Ryan Klesko; maybe you’ll get Fred McGriff. The only trouble with that strategy is that the Braves need a top reliever, and, with Gregg Olson’s elbow highly questionable, the Orioles can’t make the right offer.