Spoiler role energizes Orioles in last weeks

September 24, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

Frank Robinson remembers it as if it were yesterday. The Los Angeles Dodgers needed a victory to force a one-game playoff with the first-place Atlanta Braves, but San Francisco Giants second baseman Joe Morgan ended their 1982 season with a dramatic, late-inning home run in the final game of the year.

"That couldn't have been any sweeter," said Robinson, who was managing the Giants at the time. "They had knocked us out of the race on Friday night, so there wasn't anything sweeter than that."

The role of the spoiler means different things to different people. The Giants of 1982 were not also-rans, but they were down to playing for personal satisfaction when they helped propel the Braves into the playoffs. The Baltimore Orioles have been playing for pride for a couple of months now, but they can still take a bite out of the Boston Red Sox's pennant drive this week.

Robinson feels that the heightened pressure of the pennant race -- even for an opposing team near the other end of the standings -- has a way of bringing out the best in everyone.

"For a veteran player, if you can't be in it yourself, playing the clubs that are is the next best thing," he said. "You want to put out the same effort every game, but it's just human nature. When you're playing a contending team, you don't have to kick yourself in the pants to get up."

Opinions vary. Manager John Oates has long contended that the only thing the Orioles need to think about is playing sound, fundamental baseball and winning as many games as possible down the stretch. The opponent is irrelevant.

"We're going out to win every game," he said. "It's just as rewarding to beat the Cleveland Indians as the Boston Red Sox. We're trying to win every game. There's no special vendetta against a contending team."

But he concedes that the environment improves when there is something on the line, and that could have an effect on the level of play.

"It doesn't matter who we beat," he said, "but I think the game is more enjoyable to play when there are people in the stands. Our players are professionals. They'll give the same effort whether there are 5,000 fans in Cleveland or 50,000 somewhere else. They give the same effort, but the adrenalin is going to be flowing when you're playing in front of the big crowd."

The Orioles just returned from a six-game road trip that included stops in Boston, where there wasn't an empty seat in the house, and Cleveland, where there were about 75,000 of them for every game. The difference in intensity was obvious, but the results were the same. The second-place Red Sox and last-place Indians each took two of three games.

Nevertheless, there are players in the Orioles clubhouse who are using the three-game series with the Red Sox as a motivational tool. Just ask first baseman Randy Milligan.

"All I've got to say is, at this time of year in our position in the standings, this is what you live for," he said. "I want to make it tough on them, because there will come a time when it's our turn and they're going to make it hard on us."

Outfielder Dwight Evans has looked at the issue from both sides now. He went to the playoffs with the Red Sox last year, and delivered some big hits along the way. It is conceivable that some time over the next two days, he could play a role in preventing their return to postseason play, but he says that he does not harbor a special desire to torpedo the Red Sox's division title drive.

"I play to win no matter who it is," Evans said. "As far as they [the Red

Sox] are concerned, I've cut that cord. I pull for them because I have friends over there, but they are going to have to earn it. I want to beat everybody."

He does admit having a special desire to excel against his former teammates, but he isn't sure that the opportunity to play a peripheral role in a pennant race is particularly beneficial to his youthful teammates.

"The best thing for them would be to be in a pennant race -- to be part of a winning team," he said. "But hopefully, there are some guys looking over there and saying, 'That's where I want to be next year.' "

That may be true, but the Orioles organization is happy for the opportunity to see some of the club's promising players under simulated pennant race pressure.

"You can get a better read on what they are capable of doing," Robinson said, "because the other team isn't running their Triple-A call-ups out there."

The Orioles called up rookie pitchers Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes before Sept. 1 for just that reason. They wanted to make sure that each of them faced legitimate major-league competition.

"When you play non-contending teams, they are going to have a lot of Triple-A players on their roster," Oates added. "When you pitch in Cleveland in front of 4,000 fans, it's not the same as pitching in the bottom of the ninth in Boston.

"It isn't like one bad pitch and you're not going to the World Series, so the total pressure is not there. But there is definitely more pressure. I think that will help a Mike Mussina and that type guy when he comes back next year. They'll know what it's like to pitch in front of 50,000 people."

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