The Baltimore Orioles have four months to figure out exactly when the wheels came off their 1990 division drive. The Randy Milligan injury? The Phil Bradley trade? Spring training? Maybe that's why God created talk shows.
Expectations probably were too high to begin with, thanks to the club's magical run in 1989, but the Orioles remained within
wishing distance of the American League East lead until August, until a string of injuries had them wishing that they were half as deep in talent as they soon would be in the standings.
Manager Frank Robinson predicted early on that the club would remain competitive only as long as it remained healthy. Every significant injury would be a depth charge, and it wouldn't take many before a talent gap would begin to surface.
"Every injury hurt us," he said, "because we're not that deep a ballclub. When you've got depth, your chances of surviving something like that are greater, but even a deep team would have had trouble going through what we went through."
The loss of first baseman Milligan stands out, but only because he was one of the offensive leaders on a team that didn't take offense to much of anything this year. The one guy who was hitting for consistent power took one hit too many at home plate and was lost for most of the final two months of the season.
It was a devastating blow, to be sure. Milligan was on a 30-homer, 90-RBI pace when he suffered a shoulder separation in an Aug. 7 crash with Oakland Athletics catcher Ron Hassey. Milligan was one of the few constants in a constantly changing lineup. He undoubtedly was missed, but that wasn't the whole story.
For that, you have to go back to spring training, back to the first indications that the most-asked question of 1989 -- "Why not?" -- was about to be answered.
Who could blame Orioles fans for being excited? The club had gone down to the wire with the Toronto Blue Jays just a few months earlier. It would return with largely the same promising young pitching staff, plus No. 1 draft choice Ben McDonald. Why not, indeed.
But McDonald and middle reliever Mark Williamson went down with injuries during the lockout-shortened spring training, forcing Robinson to start pushing buttons before the season even began.
The season-opening rotation included two pitchers -- Jeff Ballard and Jay Tibbs -- who were coming off surgery. Tibbs was dropped from the rotation after a 2-7 start and traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 15. Ballard went 1-9 before he was moved to the bullpen in early July. Both probably came back too soon, but neither would admit it.
Ballard deserves credit for making a speedy return, but his arm was not right, and it probably cost him a guaranteed place in next year's rotation. Had he come back in June or July, as originally predicted by the club's medical staff, he would have been in a position to give the team a midseason lift instead of struggling just to lift his left arm.
Tibbs was designated for assignment and then traded, which unlocked a revolving door to the rotation that did not close until the Orioles youth movement took over in the final weeks of play.
The Orioles had dropped 11 1/2 games out of first place by late June, but they staged a strong July rally to enter the final two months of the season within striking range of the division lead. Then they struck out on their second West Coast road trip and went into a free fall that didn't end until a recent six-game winning streak pulled the club out of sixth place.
Though the second half of the season provided some positive developments, including the emergence of McDonald and the surprising arrival of right-hander Jose Mesa, 1990 was a series of disappointments.
"We needed to have expectations," Robinson said. "We didn't get carried away, but I think we all expected things to go better than they have."
The stat masters will tell you that this was to be expected. Teams that have made such a dramatic move in the standings (as the Orioles did from 1988 to 1989) historically have fallen back the next season before beginning a steadier ascent.
The August collapse put the Orioles in excellent position to continue that trend, because it opened up the final months of the season to a mass audition for 1991. Mesa, who has pitched so well the past month that he'll come to spring training as one of the top five candidates for the starting rotation, would not have gotten such a long look if the club had been in the race. Neither would Curt Schilling, who has been impressive out of the bullpen, or David Segui, who has played well at first base.
"They wouldn't have gotten the playing time or innings they ended up getting," Robinson said. "That could put us in much better shape for next year."