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Van Slyke waits as Pirates count pennies

With his circus catches, funny lines and family-man image, Andy Van Slyke is nearly as big an asset to Pittsburgh as Heinz ketchup or U.S. Steel.

He's not just the Pirates' best player. To many, Van Slyke is the Pirates.

Maybe not for long.

The uncertain economic state of one of baseball's oldest but least-stable franchises means Van Slyke's tenure with the Pirates might be measured not in years, but in months.

He's exactly the kind of player they can't afford to lose, but probably can't afford to keep.

Van Slyke's $12.65-million, three-year contract expires after this season, and the three-time All-Star centerfielder with an achy back and a passion for slamming into outfield walls will be 34 by spring training 1995. Not old, for sure, but perhaps too old for the Pirates to invest in heavily.

The Pirates haven't yet made an offer to the five-time Gold Glove winner, and Van Slyke doesn't know if they will.

"I'm still an employee, and the first decision has to be made by the employers," he said Monday. "I don't think they know anything yet, and I can't worry about it. It's something they have to figure out. But the time will come when they have to say yes or no."

Right now, Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay's answer is . . . well, neither yes nor no.

Bonifay knows the Pirates can hardly allow a player with Van Slyke's on-field skills, marketing abilities and community image to move on, but he also knows they may have no other choice. To re-sign Van Slyke will take millions of dollars, and millions are exactly what the Pirates don't have.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy said the Pirates are $40-million in debt and must raise $8-million by next season to remain in operation.

"We'd like to keep all of our good players," Bonifay said. "But we have to take into consideration our situation and project our situation two to three years down the road."

Van Slyke knows Pittsburgh's economic troubles are real but, like many other players, questions whether baseball really is in as dire straits financially as the owners say.

"I'm getting tired about hearing about the economic climate of baseball," Van Slyke said. "It's the same old song and dance. I don't want to hear that. If they can't sign me, they can't. It's pretty simple. When they're ready to make a decision, they'll tell me."

If Van Slyke doesn't have a future with the Pirates beyond 1994 _ and that's clearly the signal being put out _ it's evident who does.

"We have to use the minor-league system to bring up good young players ready to play," Bonifay said. "Perhaps there are other good players in our farm system and perhaps it will be time for them to play."

And time for Van Slyke to find another team?

"With my heart and mind, I have to think they want to sign me," Van Slyke said. "If they don't, I can't think it's because they think I'm a public relations disaster or a bad player. I think it would be a good investment for me and the Pirates. But whatever they choose, I'll accept it and get on with my life. The Pirates will never owe me; I will always owe them. I can only thank them for what they've done for me and for the rest of my life."