Is spring mirage, but Birds are better

OK, 10-3

March 19, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- I'll admit it. I'm getting sucked in.

Are those the Orioles, or the '27 Yankees?

Don't tell me to get out of the sun. Don't tell me it's only spring training. The Orioles are 106 games under .500 since my arrival in '87. I was cheerful once. Now I'm a crab.

I'm Pat Buchanan to Eli Jacobs' George Bush. I'm Jerry Brown to Larry Lucchino's Bill Clinton. These guys ruin my every summer. I hate saying nice things about their team.

This time, I can't help it.

This time, I actually think the Orioles are good.

It's early. Real early. Too early. But check out those Grapefruit League standings, baby. The Orioles are a butt-kicking 10-3. Last night, they beat Philadelphia 1-0 in 10 innings -- on a wild pitch.

These games don't count, of course, but it's better to win them than lose them. We already know the Orioles can lose -- they did it 95 times last year. But winning? You'd sooner solve the Amelia Earhart mystery.

Oh heavens, somebody did.

Reasons to be cheerful, from the spring of '92:

1. The manager. It infuriated some players that Frank Robinson watched early spring workouts from a golf cart. John Oates is so involved, he even did calisthenics.

A small thing perhaps, but one that builds unity. This is Oates' first training camp. He's impeccably organized, relentlessly upbeat.

You say: Who cares?

I say: Manager of the Year.

"He's terrific," pitcher Mike Flanagan said. "He's taking the best from the managers he has been around. Some are hard, and don't communicate. Some are too easy.

"He seems to be able to find a mixture of strength and communication, which is rare. I think he's going to be a good manager for a long time."

2. The rotation. The Orioles were so inept in this area last season, the difference in ERA between their starters (5.29) and relievers (3.45) was the highest in major-league history, according to the Elias Baseball Analyst.

Now the starters are so good, they don't give up any runs. In fact, they've allowed only four in 40 innings this spring -- a microscopic 0.90 ERA.

You say: Really?

I say: Scary.

Of course, the whole thing collapses if someone gets hurt, but that's true for every team. As it stands, Rick Sutcliffe will be the same type of leader for the starters as Flanagan is for the relievers. And Mike Mussina, guaranteed, will be a star.

Hey, Jose Mesa is the odd man out, and catcher Mark Parent said the first pitch he threw to Don Mattingly in Fort Lauderdale Monday night was "probably the best fastball I've seen in 10 years."

"I caught Goose [Gossage] in San Diego. I saw a lot of good arms in Texas," Parent said. "But that pitch to Mattingly had to be going 100 mph. It looked like a golf ball going in there. Put him and Ben [McDonald] in there, and they'll bust some bats."

Oh yeah, McDonald.

Forgot about him.

3. Glenn Davis. A year ago at this time, both he and McDonald were injured. Now Davis is not only healthy, he's crushing the ball -- witness his .348 average and two homers in 24 spring at-bats.

"He's getting me excited," Oates said.

You say: He'll get hurt.

I say: 30 homers, 100 RBIs.

4. Brady Anderson. Don't laugh. He'll probably open the season as the leadoff hitter against righthanders. Never mind his career .219 average, the Orioles have trotted out worse.

Alan Wiggins, anyone?

Jeff Stone?

Oates said Anderson is the third most stubborn man in the clubhouse, behind himself and third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. He also said Anderson has this habit of trying to swing like Cecil Fielder, a problem for a guy who weighs 185 pounds.

You say: He's also 28.

I say: Phenom.

Anderson is only 4-for-20 this spring, but he has a .333 on-base percentage and six stolen bases in nine exhibitions (including a 'B' game). Tuesday in West Palm Beach, he forced two pitchouts that led to a Joe Orsulak walk and a Randy Milligan two-run double.

The truth?

Oates loves him.

5. The great Elias theory. It goes like this: A team that shows dramatic spring-training improvement the season after posting a poor record in one-run games is bound for glory.

You say: Ridiculous.

I say: Bingo!

The theory accounts for two recent world champions -- the '87 Minnesota Twins and the '88 Los Angeles Dodgers -- not to mention the surprising '89 Orioles.

The current Orioles were 18-35 in one-run games last season -- the most one-run losses in the American League in 23 years. Combine that with a big spring, and away we go.

I can see it now: Jacobs accepting the World Series trophy from commissioner Fay Vincent without comment, Lucchino shaking his fists at reporters and shouting, "I told you so!"

Sorry, Larry.

You read it here first.

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