BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Letting Parker Get Away Was a Mistake

Reflecting the market and a commitment to retaining the nucleus of their championship team, the Oakland Athletics' player payroll has risen from $11.5 million in 1988 to almost $21 million this season.

And, adding in only the increased guarantees to the recently signed Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Rick Honeycutt and Gene Nelson, the 1991 payroll is certain to approach a record $30 million.

But with all of that, the A's might have been penny safe and 230 pounds foolish last winter when they refused to meet the multiyear demands of Dave Parker, who left as a free agent and got a two-year guarantee of $2,625,000 from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Parker, at 39, is in the midst of a most-valuable-player-type season.

He was fourth in the American League with a .330 batting average through Thursday, tied for fourth in runs batted in with 50, had nine home runs and had proven to be a catalytic influence on Gary Sheffield, a rookie disappointment in 1989.

Parker's roll included a second inning single off the New York Yankees' Jimmy Jones Tuesday night, his 2,500th hit. Robin Yount and George Brett are the only other active players with that many, and Parker said he is confident that he will be able to play three more years and reach 3,000.

"I've sort of come full circle," he said. "Early in my career I was controversial and called a rebel. Now they say I'm a father figure, a positive influence. Three thousand hits would make all the statements that need to be made about Dave Parker."

Parker batted .264, hit 22 homers and drove in 97 runs as the A's designated hitter last year. Through Thursday, Oakland designated hitters, primarily Felix Jose, Doug Jennings and Ken Phelps, who was recently sold to the Cleveland Indians, were batting .223 with six home runs and 37 RBIs.

"They've got all those right-handed hitters and thought they could get along without me," said Parker, who bats left-handed. "Maybe they're finding out that they can't."

The predominantly right-handed hitting A's are third in the league in runs scored and 35-22 against right-handed pitching. When Canseco is in the lineup and they are at full strength physically, it generally doesn't matter from which side the pitcher throws. But when Canseco is sidelined, when the lineup is less than 100%, the A's have been vulnerable to right-handed pitching, a situation compounded by the absence of a left-handed DH with reliable power.

Said Sandy Alderson, the A's general manager: "A healthy Jose alleviates whatever worry we have about the DH, but without him it creates more pressure on the rest of the lineup, meaning we can't afford weakness in the fifth and sixth position, where the DH is normally found.

"I'd like to see more production out of our designated hitters, but when you're third or fourth in the league in runs, I wouldn't say it's a terrible problem."

Neither would he say that he was surprised by Parker's performance or that the A's had erred in allowing him to leave.

"Sometimes a change of scenery helps, and in Dave's case he seems to thrive on it," Alderson said. "He responded when he came to Oakland and he has responded in Milwaukee. Would he be having the same season if he was still with us? Who knows?

"I mean, it's easy to say, 'I wish we had done this or that,' but we were faced with three choices, not one, and it's still not clear to me which of the three I would change if I could."

Besides Parker, pitcher Storm Davis and infielder Tony Phillips were allowed to leave as free agents. At the time, Alderson said, the A's considered Davis the most critical loss. In spring training, he said, some made it seem as if the A's would miss the versatile Phillips the most. Now, he added, "the revisionists say we should have signed Parker."

The bottom line, Alderson said, was the bottom line. The A's, realizing what they would have to give their superstars, had to make economic decisions that left room for the development of young players, such as Felix Jose and his comparatively modest salary.

"The thought of a $30-million payroll is real scary, particularly in a market of our size," Alderson said. "It represents our limit, a squeeze on our ability to continue to field a competitive team. The way the economics are, you have to develop young players. I mean, I used to say that we could no longer afford a million-dollar player at every position. Now I have to say that we can no longer afford a $3-million player at every position."

The A's ledger still isn't complete. Bob Welch, having his best season, is eligible for free agency when it ends and will be looking for more than his current $1-million salary. Mark McGwire, now earning $1.5 million, is bound to go to $2 million, and Henderson, who agreed to $12 million for four years in November and has since seen 10 players sign contracts for average annual salaries of more than $3 million, can be counted on to renegotiate.

How long will Canseco's five-year, $23.5-million package stay the biggest? Canseco thinks it will stand for the life of the contract, although three top players--Len Dykstra, Bobby Bonilla and Darryl Strawberry--opened negotiations with their clubs this week:

--Dykstra, agent Alan Meersand said, is seeking a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that would put him on a par with Henderson and other top leadoff hitters and center fielders, a category in which management has said Dykstra belongs.

--Bonilla, agent Dennis Gilbert implied, is looking for a Will Clark-type contract, four years at $15 million.

"Bobby means to Pittsburgh what Clark means to San Francisco, but he doesn't have the luxury of Kevin Mitchell batting behind him," said Gilbert, who also represents Canseco.

Gilbert flew to Pittsburgh the other day at the Pirates' invitation, but when he was not even given a proposal by the club, Bonilla asked to be traded.

The situation probably can be resolved, although Bonilla, back at his original position in the outfield, carries the memory of a bitter defeat in arbitration, where he heard the club castigate his fielding at third base. That was an alien position but he had moved there as a favor to the team.

--Strawberry, through agent Eric Goldschmidt, is pursuing a five-year contract "similar to Canseco's." The timing was right for an initial contact with New York Met Vice President Al Harazin. The Mets are playing to their potential under Bud Harrelson, no one more so than Strawberry, who had a 17-game hitting streak through Thursday and had hit 11 home runs and driven in 29 over his last 27 games.

Strawberry, rebounding from his rehabilitation for alcoholism, said he is at peace with the idea of remaining in New York. He can build a case for matching Canseco around their similar home run and RBI career ratios. Canseco has a home run every 16 at-bats and an RBI every 4.98. Strawberry has a home run every 15.6 at-bats and an RBI every 5.38.

"What's Canseco done that some of us others haven't?" Strawberry said. "He's a great player, I agree. He had that 40-40 (steals and home runs) year, but I had a 30-30, and I'm on my way to another great year. You'd have to put us in the same category."

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