They'll try to play as nice as it looks

MIKE LITTWIN

April 06, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

When the season opens today, it might be hard to concentrate on baseball. This year, Opening Day promises to be as much a christening as it does a ballgame. The president shouldn't throw out the first pitch; he should break a bottle of champagne against the hull of one of the sky boxes.

But, of course, there's more at work here than a brick facade and sweeping arches. Somebody's got to actually play baseball at Camden Yards. Isn't that among the reasons they built the place?

Which brings us to the unavoidable truth of this season: It's one thing to build a showcase (especially with someone else's money); it's quite another to put on a show.

John Oates put it this way: "Hopefully, we'll play as well as it looks."

If that happens, the '92 Orioles will someday be mentioned in the same breath as the '27 Yankees, or at least the '91 Twins. But let's get serious. The Orioles' mission this year is not to get into the World Series -- they won't -- but simply to prove worthy of their new digs.

What would it take? A .500 season, following one with 95 losses, would be a wonderful year.

A .500 season would mean the Orioles, who had losing seasons in five of their past six, were finally showing progress. A .500 season would mean that in a stadium meant to evoke traditional values, the Orioles might actually evoke some of their own.

The key, of course, is (say it with me) pitching.

Do you remember last season? The Orioles said it was a season to remember. Remember?

I know, you're trying not to.

But there is one thing, besides the 95 losses, you have to know: In 43 games last season, the Orioles were losing by as many as three runs before the fourth inning.

It would be great if Brady Anderson, after all these years, emerged as a leadoff hitter. It would be fine if Chris Hoiles and Leo Gomez and Chito Martinez emerged as legitimate big-leaguers. What if Bill Ripken hit more than .230? What if Sam Horn dented the warehouse? There are many question marks, but even more important than a return of Glenn Davis to form is the pitching. The Orioles will likely score enough runs to stay in most games. Will the pitching keep them there?

Everyone wants pitching. Some teams -- the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox, to name two -- went out and spent big money to shore up their pitching. The Blue Jays, upon drawing 4 million, got Jack Morris despite already having the best pitching staff in the league. They're a lock to win the AL East.

The Orioles, meantime, went cheap. The citizens of Maryland gave them a stadium. They bought 25,000 season tickets. They're going to pour about 3 million people into Camden Yards. And what did the Orioles do in return? They desperately needed pitching and came up with Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis.

Sutcliffe, once a top pitcher, is now problematic. You can watch him today. I love the guy. I think he's the key to the season. But he's also 36 and coming off surgery. What if you had him and Jack Morris? And, of course, Storm Davis didn't even crack the starting rotation.

And then there is the Orioles' 4-M Club.

Mike Mussina looks as if he can be a star. People are high on his poise, his intelligence, his fastball and his control, in no particular order.

Ben McDonald always looks as if he can be a star. The game plan is to low-key McDonald, and everyone seems to be buying into it. Ben has been busy with his squirt guns, and Oates calls him "one of our Joes." If McDonald and Mussina emerge this season, the Orioles just might have something going.

Also intriguing is Jose Mesa. He, too, has been intriguing before. But he faded badly after a fast start last year. Will this year be different? The radar gun has him at 94 miles an hour, which is faster even than in his pre-operation days.

Leaving Bob Milacki, who is steady. Back in '89, he was better than steady.

You look at the rotation and you think, "What if . . ." That's the problem. There's so much potential there, and yet each of the pitchers starts off with a "What if?"

A wise man once told me that if you leave spring training with more than a couple of ifs on your team, you can't expect to contend. The Orioles have more than a couple. What do you call it when your backup catcher has eight career big-league at-bats?

But what do you call a starting rotation that has Jeff Ballard, Dave Johnson, Jeff Robinson? You call it last season. This season everyone pitched well in the spring, and even though it was the spring, there is reason for hope.

I picked the Orioles fourth last season -- and they finished sixth. I'm going to pick them fourth again -- and wouldn't be shocked if they finished higher.

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