In baseball, hope springs infernal


February 26, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

People often ask me the point of spring training, and that surprises me. Because the point seems so obvious.

The underlying theme of spring training is to succor (sucker?) the folks back home.

Because when it's February here, and it's ugly and raining and cold and miserable even with global warming, it's 80 degrees in Florida. That's where the ballplayers are and the writers are and the sportscasters are, and everyone's poolside happily sipping poolside-style beverages. Down there, everything looks good. Why not? It's spring.

Remember how good you felt over the weekend when it was only 65 degrees? That's how they feel every day.

And so, spring-like reports come in, wrapped in sunshine. And, by Opening Day, every fan in every big-league city across America believes his or her team is ready to be this year's Twins or Braves.

Here's an example: You could look at the Orioles' prospective starting five pitchers and see a group whose combined record last season was 29-36.

Or you could look at them and notice they are all remarkably tall.

That's what I want you to do now. When you think of the Orioles staff -- five guys ranging from 6 feet 2 to 6-7 -- think how they'd do if a basketball game broke out. That's how you do it in springtime.

One engages in what we in the biz like to call spring-think.

You do not, for instance, drive yourself nuts wondering how it was that the Orioles brought back Storm Davis. Instead, you're just happy your mom and dad didn't name you after any meteorological phenomena. Actually, in spring-think, you try not to consider Storm Davis at all.

What you do is think about Mike Mussina. He's young and talented and, when he came up at the end of last season, he looked as if he had the stuff to be another, well, another Ben McDonald. No, no, no, no. That's not it. You think Mike Mussina might be Jim Palmer and Ben McDonald might be Roger Clemens.

In spring-think, Mussina wins 13 and McDonald finally cashes in on his potential to win 18 and steady Bob Milacki wins 14 and Rick Sutcliffe comes back from injury to inspire a city, a state, a country, a free world with 16 wins and Storm Davis . . . Wait, we don't think about Storm Davis. Let's think about Jose Mesa instead. His arm is sound now, and, hey, he throws 92, so why not 14 wins?

If just three of those guys come through, you've got a .500 team, right?

If four come through, you've got a contender.

See, it's easy.

If you want to drive yourself crazy, you consider an ex-O's pitching staff of Mike Boddicker, Dennis Martinez, Pete Harnisch and Mike Morgan. If you want to pretend you're going golfing later, right after you finish off the pina colada, you think Tall Ball can lead the Orioles back to glory.

What you definitely don't think about is five losing seasons in the past six.

And you don't wonder how John Oates is going to find playing time for Glenn Davis, Randy Milligan and Sam Horn.

You don't worry whether Gregg Olson has thrown too much too soon.

Instead, you're glad you had bad seats at Memorial Stadium, so you didn't get hammered by the Orioles ticket office in the move to Camden Yards.

That's spring-think.

Try this one: Remember how, at every game last year, the Orioles were losing 4-0 in the first inning? This year, with the traffic, you won't get to the game until the third. With luck, it might be 4-2 by then.

A year ago, many of us were caught up in the revelry of the season. We saw Glenn Davis and expected 30 home runs. We knew Cal Ripken had to hit again eventually. We thought brother Bill was the real thing. We watched as Leo Gomez and Craig Worthington battled for the third-base slot. Some people thought Brady Anderson would finally make it. Others, though not many, actually believed Jeff Robinson could be a winning pitcher. Many thought Jeff Ballard would bounce back.

And the Orioles still finished sixth.

But you saw what happened to the Twins and Braves, didn't you?

What would have to go right for the Orioles to contend this time? Glenn Davis has to be healthy. Chris Hoiles has to hit. Leo Gomez has to hit. Luis Mercedes has to hit. Bill Ripken should hit a little. And a lot of pitchers have to produce a lot more than anyone has any right to expect.

And Toronto and Boston, both of which loaded up in the off-season, can't be nearly as good as projected.

In other words, everything would have to go right.

Is that possible?

Maybe not, but here's what you do:

You remember that, on Opening Day, the Orioles play Cleveland. In spring-think, the other guys are always Cleveland.

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