Saturday, March 1, 1997
Instead of the money,
Davis shown the door


BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Eric Davis feels betrayed. This is unfortunate, but probably unavoidable. Modern baseball economics make for bruised egos.

Davis had hoped to return to the Cincinnati Reds this season, and he deserved every conceivable consideration.

He has been a brilliant performer for the home team, and he became a powerful clubhouse presence in his second tour with the Reds last season.

What he did not deserve at this stage of his career was top priority at the payroll window. Eric Davis became expendable as he became more expensive.

He says the Reds lied to him last winter and led him on when they weren't serious about signing him. Reds General Manager Jim Bowden cites a two-year, $3.3 million guaranteed contract offer as proof of his sincerity. The truth, experience says, is somewhere in the middle.

Bowden's offer to Davis was significantly below the established market for polished outfielders with power. (The Baltimore Orioles are paying Davis $2.2 million for one season.) Still, Davis should not instinctively interpret Bret Boone's four-year, $11.25-million deal as proof of the Reds' duplicity.

Operating for the first time with a budget that wouldn't budge, Bowden was forced to make some hard choices this offseason. He tried to trade Boone for Atlanta first baseman Fred McGriff, but the deal collapsed because it was contingent on moving Hal Morris' salary.

Boone more valuable

That Bowden later signed Boone through the turn of the century is not at all inconsistent. When his blockbuster trade broke down, Bowden moved to protect an infield asset coveted by the National League champions. This was such a no-brainer, Marge Schott could have done it.

Productive middle infielders are a baseball commodity nearly as scarce as catchers who hit cleanup. Boone, moreover, is 27 years old. Eric Davis is 34.

Branch Rickey's bromide was that one should, ''Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.'' The same wisdom applies here. Eric Davis may be able to match his 1996 numbers in Baltimore - given the claustrophobic dimensions of Camden Yards, he may well exceed them - but Boone would seem to be the better bet long-term.

That Bowden was compelled to choose between them is regrettable, but inevitable. Ballplayers price themselves out of their markets these days at astonishing speed. Witness World Series Most Valuable Player John Wetteland's offseason move to the Texas Rangers. Consider Roger Clemens as a Toronto Blue Jay.

Much as athletes deserve the right to sell their services in a free marketplace, their mobility has cost baseball some of its charm. It is a rare player now who spends his entire career with one team. Rarer still is the one who leaves the game on his terms.

Professional sports have always been a cruel businesses, but the big money has made it more difficult to arrange graceful exits for deserving players. It has made aging players more reluctant to leave and cost-conscious management less prone to keep them on the payroll for the sake of nostalgia.

Sweet story gone sour

Ideally, Eric Davis would have finished his career in Cincinnati. His second coming last season was one of the sweeter sports stories of the year and should have earned him an encore.

Burdened by excessive expectations throughout his career, Davis appealed to previously ambivalent fans this time simply by not falling on his face. He hit 26 home runs, stole 23 bases and hit .287.

''I've always said that I'll never be as good as they say I am,'' Davis said last September. ''And I'll never be as bad as they say I am.''

It says here that Eric Davis still has more to offer a baseball club than does Deion Sanders. It also says the Reds' budget requires Bowden to get by with some bargain brands.

A year ago, Bowden signed Davis at a discount. Now he can no longer afford him. That's baseball.