O, give them a home so no duffel bags roam

MIKE LITTWIN

March 07, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- They had forecast rain for the Orioles' spring opener yesterday, but no one, save the groundskeeper, took it seriously.

As you know, the tourist industry runs Florida, and that's all they needed in a recession year: pictures of puddles where ballplayers are supposed to be.

As it turned out, it was the kind of day -- I'm not making this up -- when concessionaires roam the stands selling sun block.

Under bright sunshine on a perfectly lovely afternoon, Bob Milacki was perfect for three innings, and Cal Ripken was perfect for two at-bats, and the Orioles beat the Cardinals. What, it's perfectly fair to ask, could be better?

Well, at least one thing.

That would be Al Lang Stadium, where the Orioles were playing. It looks pretty ideal. It's got the usual amenities, including a sun-soaked view of Tampa Bay and of palm trees in the parking lot.

The problem is that the stadium belongs to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Orioles have it on sort of a time-share arrangement. My advice is, if you're thinking time-share, don't contact the Orioles.

This is the time-share from hell. Here's the drill:

When the Orioles play their 10 home games at old Al Lang, they can't hold batting practice there. They have to dress at someplace called the Huggins-Stengel Complex, which is about 10 minutes removed. They have to bat at Huggins-Stengel, and then bus to the stadium to take infield, and then, after the game, bus back to shower and dress and do whatever else it is ballplayers do.

They can't even go in the clubhouse, which the home-field Cardinals keep locked. This is how you treat guests? I don't know what the Orioles players do when nature calls. Get on a bus?

Ah, a bus.

The Orioles know buses. Last year, the Orioles were in line to get Greyhound endorsements. How's this: Fly Low with the O's. That's because rather than sharing a home field, they had no home field. Every game was a road game. Every day was a road trip.

"It was the worst," says Randy Milligan. "The worst."

How bad was it?

"We'd have 7 o'clock buses, 6 o'clock buses, bus rides all over the state. We'd bus to Fort Lauderdale and have to get out and FTC play right then."

Once more, Randy, with feeling: "I'm telling you, it was the worst."

It was so bad the Orioles knew they had to do something.

Voila, time-share.

"This is not exactly ideal either," says John Oates in a nice attempt at diplomacy.

Actually, it's ideal only when compared with last year. Why don't the Orioles have their own home? Why are they out, if not in the streets, on the road?

Wait, we all know the answer to that one. It's right there in the Orioles' front-office rule book. Rule No. 1: "If we don't get it for free, we don't want it."

When the Orioles moved from Miami because Miami wouldn't build them a training complex, they looked for someone who would. A deal in Naples fell through at the last moment. No one has rushed to adopt the Orioles, although Naples remains a possibility. Meantime, the Orioles are nowhere.

Yes, it's unbelievable.

Maryland taxpayers spend tens of millions to put the Orioles in a new downtown stadium, just so they won't ever move. And now, because no one in Florida seems inclined to build them a stadium, they're always on the move.

They may be last in the league in stolen bases, but they're still the Go-Go O's.

It was pointed out before the game that the Cardinals had played in several incarnations of Al Lang Stadium over 38 years. "We've been here for 38 hours," said an Orioles official, consulting his watch.

What does it mean?

Probably nothing this year. Last year, the bus rides may have actually taken a toll. It isn't unreasonable to suggest that the get-on-the-bus-Gus Orioles might have been worn out before the season began. I don't know how it figured out in wins and losses, but it couldn't have helped.

Now, the situation is more inconvenient than it is potentially damaging.

"It's much, much better than last year," Milligan says.

It's just much worse than everyone else has it. Oates has heard no suggestion that the matter will improve next year.

Says Oates: "We'll have to make do with what we have. It's like [Cal Ripken] Senior says, 'You've got to learn to crawl before you can walk. And you've got to learn to walk before you can run.'

"Last year, we crawled. This year, we're walking. It's a better situation, but it's not a great one."

It's better. But it's still ridiculous.

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