Orioles in '92: built to win?

April 06, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The anticipation has been building for a couple of years now, but it has been building largely because of the building. Oriole Park at Camden Yards is something to see -- who can dispute that? -- but it is the Orioles who are supposed to be on display when the 1992 season opens this afternoon.

The team may not be so new and different, but it also is a vast improvement over the previous model. The pitching staff has been revamped. The offensive lineup has been repaired. The organizational concept has been refined. The Orioles have every reason to believe they will be moving up this year, after a pair of disappointing seasons forced fans to develop an edifice complex.

The club appears to be much like its new home -- functional, well-designed and brimming with possibilities. The question is whether it is sturdy enough. Whether all of the bricks are really in place. Whether the Orioles are indeed a legitimate contender for the American League East crown, or just a pretender in a pretty new palace.

The fans have waited long enough. The Orioles have had only one winning season since 1985. They have not gone to the playoffs since winning the 1983 world championship. The "Why not?" season of 1989 was nice, but it was the element of surprise that made that team so exciting.

The 1992 version might surprise some people, but it will not ambush anyone.

The starting rotation, such a problem a year ago, begins with former Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe and ends with a pitcher -- Jose Mesa -- who did not give up a run all of spring training.

The three arms in the middle (Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina) represent the core of a pitching youth movement that is the envy of the American League.

The offense also is improved, largely because first baseman Glenn Davis has returned from a freak neck injury that kept him out of action for most of his first season with the club.

If all goes well, he'll hit behind shortstop Cal Ripken all year, which should put Ripken in position for a suitable encore to his MVP performance in 1991.

There's a lot more to it than that, of course, so what better time than Opening Day for a primer on the team? Here are 10 things that every fan should know about the 1992 Orioles:

They're not the '27 Yankees

Most fans have come to realize this, but manager John Oates was quoted as saying it on several occasions this spring, so this is probably a good time to clarify the situation once and for all.

The 1992 Orioles are not even close to the 1927 Yankees. For one thing, all the 1992 Orioles are still alive. The only link to the '27 Yankees is the Babe Ruth privy, which was unearthed by archeologists in what now is center field at the new ballpark. But if the Orioles win it all this year, they truly can say that they went from the outhouse to the penthouse.

Nor are the Blue Jays

L But the Toronto Blue Jays are a lot closer than the Orioles.

The Blue Jays feature a lineup that includes Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Dave Winfield, Kelly Gruber, Devon White and potential Rookie of the Year Derek Bell. Their starting rotation includes four pitchers who won at least 15 games last year. Their bullpen includes two relievers -- Tom Henke and Duane Ward -- who are capable of saving 40 games.

On paper, the Blue Jays are the best team in the division. It's not even close.

Pitching is everything

Sure, it's a baseball cliche, but there's a good reason for that.

It's absolutely true.

The Orioles fell behind by three runs or more in the first three innings 43 times last year.

They went on to lose 95 games.

The pitching staff has been overhauled since then. Sutcliffe was signed as a free agent. Storm Davis was acquired from the Kansas City Royals. McDonald is healthy. Mussina has been overpowering. And Mesa -- the only holdover from the rotation that opened the 1991 season -- has been the surprise of spring.

"Just a bunch of Joes"

That is the unofficial motto of the 1992 club, coined by Oates to reflect the blue-collar work ethic he has tried to instill this spring.

There actually are only a couple of Joes -- Joe Orsulak and Jose Mesa -- but you get the picture.

Oates is a low-key guy who likes his players to be the same way.

He doesn't like a lot of hot-dogging and high-fiving, although that isn't the reason there wasn't much of that in 1991.

One guy stands out

The 1991 season was not a total loss, but only because Ripken put on a one-man show that cemented his reputation as one of greatest shortstops to play the game.

He set career highs with a .323 batting average, 34 home runs and 114 RBI on the way to his second American League Most Valuable Player trophy.

What will he do for an encore?

"I'd take any of his last 10 seasons," Oates said.

Who wouldn't? Ripken has averaged 26 home runs and 94 RBI over his 10 full seasons in the major leagues.

Elvis lives

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