Parallels are few for O's of '89, '92

JOHN EISENBERG

May 31, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is tempting to compare the 1992 Orioles to their 1989 brethren, and why not? Have you seen the ballclub produce any other contenders in the past nine years?

But here is the deal: The comparison doesn't work. Other than a dozen or so of the same names, and the fact that each was coming off a losing season of breathtaking proportion, the teams have little in common.

The 89ers were a true sporting miracle, almost impossible to explain, unsupportable by statistics or logic. This year's Orioles, the Her-O's of Camden Yards, are grounded in reality. They make for a much more reasonable contender.

The 89ers won 87 games despite being out-homered, outhit by 20 points and -- get this -- almost outscored. Manager Frank Robinson used 113 different lineups. The pitchers were ninth in the league in ERA.

This year's Her-O's rank third in the league in runs and ERA, and a respectable sixth in batting.

The 89ers won with Jeff Ballard as the ace of the rotation in his only substantive season. Jay Tibbs, Mickey Weston and Kevin Hickey were among the multitude of contributors up from nowhere.

The Her-O's make more sense. They have two of baseball's best young starters in Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, a settled bullpen and a hardy 145-game winner in Rick Sutcliffe.

See? There really is no comparing. The 89ers were a wonderful freak of baseball nature. The Her-O's can play ball a little. More than a little, or so it seems.

But before we revise the 89ers into nothingness, remember that their primary achievement was a biggie that the bigger, badder Her-O's still must match: They had their nose in the Blue Jays' business right up until the end. They contended until the last weekend of the season.

The Her-O's still must demonstrate they are similarly built to last.

Nothing helped the 89ers more than the Blue Jays' mediocrity, but let's not miss the basic point: The 89ers were tough. Tough like Michael Jordan in the next playoff game after a loss. Tough like Michael Chang any time he steps onto a tennis court. They were resolute and resourceful and, when outhit or outpitched, often came up with timely hits and big outs.

Do this year's Her-O's have the same stuff? They had the major leagues' best record last week, but that means nothing with more than 110 games to go. It is still too early for a final pronouncement.

No, you find out about a team when things go wrong. Do they wallow in it? Do they withstand it? When the 89ers lost 13 of 14 in July and August, they didn't do the long shot's fade. The lesson was a cliche stolen from children's sports fiction: They did what it took to contend.

The crucible is coming for the Her-O's. So far this year, just about everything has gone right. They needed the young pitching to come around. It did. They needed a leadoff hitter and a healthy Sutcliffe. They got both. They needed Chris Hoiles to come up big. He did. They needed Leo Gomez and Todd Frohwirth to prove they were not flukes in 1991. They weren't.

What hasn't gone right? Not much. Cal Ripken isn't hitting big, but he will. About the only debits so far are that Glenn Davis got hurt and Jose Mesa is 2-5. That's all, and that's a short list.

See, baseball just doesn't work that way. No season is that easy. It is a game of percentages, and .300 is considered terrific. The Orioles are batting around .850 right now, if you get the idea. Which means things are going to get rougher.

You can see it starting to happen. The club has lost eight of 12. Sutcliffe has been hit hard in his past three starts. Bob Milacki is always pitching in trouble. Hoiles' average is dropping. McDonald has been hit harder than his 6-2 record indicates. Mussina has been sicker than sick.

Young, new to contending, will these Orioles stand up to the struggle? Are they built to last? A lot of people say yes. Tony La Russa did when the A's were in town. Sparky Anderson did early in the season. But that's just talk. The reality is that, as the season gets tougher and more complicated, we are going to find out.

Certainly, it helps that the goods in the division are still the Blue Jays, a team that is supremely talented, but deeply scarred from years of playoff misery. They play under their ability and tend to sulk when things don't go well. Jack Morris, after years with the get-tough Tigers and Twins, has been shocked at the Jays' lethargy.

It is what helped the 89ers stay close, and it could help again this year. These Jays are superior to the '89 version, led by Morris, Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter, but they still are not as improved over '89 as the Orioles. Of course, the lesson of the Orioles in '89 was that it doesn't always matter how talented you are. This year's Orioles pitch better and hit better than the 89ers. But in the end, will they compare?

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