There is an invisible line that losing major-league teams cross. Call it the Utterly Hopeless Line (UHL), or perhaps just the Dukakis Line. It is the point in the season beyond which there is no hope for contending. Once across, teams do not win division titles.
They cross the line long before they are officially eliminated, of course. (Hence, the Dukakis Line.) There is no tangible evidence of the crossing. It just becomes clear, as the pile of losses rises, that the team is going nowhere. No matter that dozens of games remain. It just isn't going to happen.
All of which brings us to the Orioles, who, if they haven't crossed the UHL, certainly are within sight of it. Let's take stock. They have a 24-41 record. That's the worst in the majors. They are 11 1/2 games out of first. They've got enough bad stats to send any card-carrying sabremetrician into shock.
The only reasons not to dismiss their season as a flop are that they reside in the majors' worst division and still have 97 games on their schedule. But only in such a cold, mathematical light do their chances appear anything other than utterly hopeless.
Let's face it, any shred of optimism is foolish. The Orioles are not the worst team in the majors, but injuries and slumps have sapped this season of hope. The other day, manager John Oates said, "We've got one of the worst records, and it's going to take time to get better." Does that sound like a man gearing up for a long-shot run at the division? Hey, he's no dummy. He's seen his starting pitchers.
Sixty-five games is awfully early for a team to cross the Hopeless Line, but the Orioles are close. Even the most shimmering optimist couldn't look at them right now and envision a contender. So let's talk about what should happen if and when management can admit this is a lost season.
Some changes should occur, no doubt about it. Just because a season is lost doesn't mean it becomes useless. It gives the team a chance to answer some questions. And the Orioles have plenty of questions.
Chris Hoiles is one of them. The Orioles traded Mickey Tettleton, at least ostensibly, because Hoiles was their future catcher. But he didn't hit early in the season, and now he's not playing. It's time to find out if he can contribute. Put him in the lineup every day. Get an answer.
That should not be construed as a demotion for Bob Melvin. He could very well be the catcher next year. He's strong defensively, and his average is up this year. A team could win with him catching. But Hoiles is younger, and his minor-league numbers suggest some potency. He's worth a look. He's not going to get one at this rate.
David Segui is also worth a look in the outfield. The Orioles should put him in left field and find out if he can play there. He's looking more and more like a substantive major-league hitter. He could have a sizable role here. But with first base occupied, he needs a position.
The Moose-to-left experiment is over. Oates doesn't like it, and neither does Milligan. ("I'm 29 going on 38," he said the other day. "I just can't do some of the things I could at 21.") Segui may never be a Gold Glove outfielder, but he's a terrific first baseman, so the coordination is there. And he can run a little. Why not?
Another move is to leave Leo Gomez alone at third. It's an easy thing to say you'll do right now, when Gomez is hitting. But no one hits forever. Gomez will slump. And the club needs to resist the temptation to put Craig Worthington back in the lineup. You don't find out about a player until you let him play through the highs and lows. Anyway, it's time to trade Worthington. That should be obvious.
Dwight Evans should be traded, too. He has been a fine pickup, far better than anyone had anticipated. Had the Orioles contended, his clutch hitting might have proved invaluable. But, at 39, he doesn't have many seasons left, and it would be unfortunate for him to have to play out this one on a last-place team.
As a favor to Evans, the club should trade him to a contender. And, of course, get a prospect in return.
One area in which the club shouldn't gamble is pitching. It would be a mistake to rush Mike Mussina to the majors in this wreck of a season. Besides, shouldn't the club gather as much info as possible about Jeff Ballard, Bob Milacki and Dave Johnson, on whom the club has banked for a couple of years and about whom some hard decisions might need to be made in the off-season?
Otherwise, there are questions all over the place. Can Sam Horn hit left-handed pitching? The guy is putting up some very credible numbers. Let's find out the extent of his talent. And shouldn't Chito Martinez -- a spate of homers at Rochester -- get a look?
Obviously, none of this can be taken on unless Oates is given some assurance that his job is safe. No manager plays answer-the-questions in-season without some security. Oates doesn't have that yet. Asked the other day about his plans for next spring, Oates said, "Hey, there's no guarantee I'll be in charge next spring."
Enough already. Oates has demonstrated that he knows what he's doing. He is bright, solid, deserves a multiyear contract. The club shouldn't compound its mistake and fire another manager. The manager isn't the problem. The players are the problem. It's time to start answering some questions about them.