Nobody in the Baltimore Orioles organization has felt the heat more this summer than pitching coach Al Jackson.
The man considered a master here only two years ago, when a no-name group of over-achieving pitchers nearly helped win a division title, became the primary target of the talk-show callers and second-guessers when the starting staff took a flop and the team slowly sank in the American League East.
So, assuming the coaching staff returns next season, no one will be happier than Jackson when the Orioles set foot in St. Petersburg, Fla., to play a normal home exhibition schedule.
This spring's road show -- when the team headed for all points north, south, east and west of camp -- cut out too much of the time necessary for Jackson and his starters to iron out the kinks.
So say men close to the situation, who came to Jackson's defense.
"Al knows his job," said assistant general manager Frank Robinson. "He hated to see guys struggling this year, but you can't give guys quality time when you don't have it."
Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said: "You can't be two places at once. I can't tell you how many times Al was out at 6 in the morning and not back from the road until 7 at night. You couldn't ask guys to stay there all day waitingfor him."
The problem, said Robinson, was the occasions on which starters were left behind to work between outings.
Jackson often stayed with them as long as possible, then hopped in his automobile to make the day's game -- usually two to three hours away. A minor-league instructor, often reluctant to make suggestions, oversaw the work of the players left behind.
"It was different than anything I'd ever been through," said Jackson. "Being on the road day in and day out required a lot of adjusting.
"You need to see what's happening with the guys behind. You have to spend time with them, watch them or you don't truly know what's going on. It's something you can't do by phone.
"What it meant is tough to measure, but, at the end of spring training, something was missing, no doubt about it. I think we all let the tiredness get to us. Our thought processes were shot."
Except for Jose Mesa and Jeff Ballard, who received extra attention because of scheduling quirks and the Orioles' diligence about watching their progress, the starters got off poorly.
It was common for the team to be out of contention by the middle of games in the first two months of the regular season. The Orioles have been down by three runs or more by the fourth inning 28 times this season, though just once in the past 10 games. The starters have improved recently, also, going six or more innings in eight of the past 10 games and pitching to a 2.93 ERA.
But Jeff Robinson, Ben McDonald and Dave Johnson struggled early. And Bob Milacki was with the Class AA Hagerstown Suns until April 28 smoothing out some difficulties.
It is conceivable that the staff will not have a 10-game winner this year.
"We made the decision to leave [the spring-training site in] Miami
and hope for a year we could cope with it," said Frank Robinson. "We didn't know how it would affect things, but I don't think we really realized how difficult this would be. It was just a tough situation."
It wasn't until after the All-Star break that the starting staff started to show any consistent improvement. John Oates, who succeeded Robinson as the field manager in late May, tried to ease the difficulty by going to a six-man bullpen, with mixed results.
The spillover effect from spring training, where preparing the pitching is 90 percent of the game, was felt for a long, long time.
"I think, on a normal basis, the guys would have been in a better frame of mind," said Jackson. "They got their innings in, but there is much more to it than that, the mental attitude. We knew we were dragging, and we were fundamentally behind.
"You have to look at them, chat with them. I felt myself trying to stay back and driving the car at the same time. Home time would have amended all that."
"It was hard for the whole team," said Frank Robinson. "I tried to give them days off so nobody would overwork. But, mentally, getting on that bus every day was tough."
He said Jackson's spring-training work often consisted of 15-hour days, and it still wasn't enough.
"Our pitching is a little more consistent now, keeping us in games, giving us a chance," Frank said. "And they're the same guys except [Roy] Smith and [Todd] Frohwirth."
With the same pitching coach, who isn't suddenly rediscovering his genius.
"It's still a young, inexperienced staff Al's working with," said Hendricks. "We weren't set. McDonald got hurt, Milacki wasn't ready, Robinson was new."
So, having some firm ground in St. Petersburg next March will alleviate the problem.
"No doubt about that," said Jackson.