There's little Orioles can do to improve now


May 23, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

A slumping baseball team plays you 90 feet. Full-court presses you. At least a football team has the grace to disappear for a week: out of sight, out of mind. The Orioles are right there in your face almost every day with their inventive horrors and glum expressions.

It is a daily date with failure, and it begs an able mind to conjure remedies. Fans come equipped with only so much patience. You can endure only so much rotten pitching before standing with channel-changer in hand and bellowing, "By gum, somebody kidnap those pitchers!"

So, it should be no surprise that the air is full of solutions these days. Everyone has an idea that will save the Orioles. Trade so-and-so. Bench so-and-so. Fire the so-and-so manager. Some are sound ideas. Some are speculative. Some, such as firing the manager, are misguided.

But right or wrong, they all miss the point. They aren't the solution. They won't bring the club back, not alone. That should be understood. The Orioles are not a tinker or three from the top of the division. A Juan Bell here or Leo Gomez there might make some difference, but not enough.

The truth is there is little the Orioles can do except to continue playing with a similar cast of characters and hope their lot improves. That's not what the solution-finders want to hear, but it's true.

See, the Orioles' dilemma is not what they should do, but what they aren't doing. Many of their essential players -- the ones whose successes were considered givens as the season began -- are not producing as expected. The club's recovery, if there is to be one, must begin there.

Think about it. Go back to the start of the season. The Orioles figured their best pitcher would be Ben McDonald. Their offense would rely on Glenn Davis, Cal Ripken and Randy Milligan. Mark Williamson would set up for Gregg Olson in the bullpen. The infield defense would shine.

What has happened? Let's start with the pitching. McDonald hasn't been much of an ace. He was injured first, no fault there, but since coming back has won only two of seven starts. It is possible the club was wrong to expect so much, but McDonald can do better than he has.

So can Williamson, who is not pitching to the standard he set the previous two years. His job is to keep close games close, and he has failed several times. The club felt confident trading Curt Schilling because it had Williamson, but he has not been so dependable.

(Olson has done well -- with one notable exception in Seattle -- but a closer is the Least Valuable Player on a team that's rarely ahead.)

OK, now the offense: Cal Ripken, period. It was supposed to center around Davis, who hasn't played since late April. It's nobody's fault he damaged a nerve in his neck, but forget the reason and think of his absence's bottom line: a slugger who isn't slugging. Killer stuff for this team.

Milligan doesn't have any excuse. He just hasn't hit. At his current pace, he'll drive in 40 runs in 500 at-bats, not nearly enough from a player for whom the club did much juggling to keep his bat in the lineup.

And what about the infield defense? Bill Ripken already has committed half as many errors as he did all last season. His brother has committed two-thirds as many. Davis committed four in one game before his injury. Errors have led to a handful of big innings, and losses.

So, add it up. McDonald, Davis, Williamson, Milligan, the infield defense -- that's a not-so-small collection of names and places the Orioles took for granted, a real chunk of their cornerstone, and, for a variety of reasons, none is coming up big.

Only if they begin coming up big can the club start thinking about a climb in the standings. That does mean getting back a healthy Davis, a thread on which this unraveling season depends.

It is a lesson in fundamentals: You're going nowhere if your best players don't do well. Consider the 9-5 loss to Detroit last night. The Orioles had won dramatically the night before, but McDonald didn't last through the second inning, ruining the Orioles' chances of parlaying

Tuesday's victory into momentum.

Now, that doesn't mean tinkering with the mix is a bad idea. Please understand: Those mentioned are where a comeback must begin, but that doesn't mean the problems are all their fault. This has been a collective production. Dave Johnson, Jeff Ballard and Craig Worthington are prominent among those who have not lived up to billing.

Except for Jose Mesa, Ripken and Mike Devereaux and Flanagan, no one is performing as anticipated. There are bomb-outs all over the clubhouse. What that means, of course, is it is a ridiculous idea to fire Frank Robinson. A manager can't begin to drag a club as far down as the Orioles have gone. Not when so many players are going so badly.

(A footnote: Firing the manager is an easy option to which losing clubs often resort -- the Cubs and Royals have done so in the past 48 hours -- and it occasionally succeeds in kick-starting a team, but not often. There are a lot more fired managers than divisions won.)

It comes down to this: The Orioles can't make a significant trade -- clubs don't make big trades in-season -- and can't expect much help from Rochester. There just isn't much they can do. Anyway, any moves wouldn't strike at the heart of the matter. The Orioles' best hope is that their best players start playing better, or, in Davis' case, playing at all. The simplest solution.

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