Unimportant game is final first for park

JOHN EISENBERG

September 24, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Back in the beginning, when we were still breaking in the shiny new digs at Camden Yards, there was the First Game, the First Win, the First Night Game, the First Loss, the First Sunday Game, the First Grand Slam, the First Rain Delay, the First Ball Off The Tall Wall in Right, the First Todd Frohwirth Glove and Cap Throw, and, of course, the memorable First Sam Horn Triple.

Then there was the First Rise in Ticket Prices. No, wait. Make that the First Annual Rise in Ticket Prices.

You figured that had to be it, right? Even the weepiest seamhead can invest in only so much "history" in any year. But then Cal Ripken Sr. was telling Tim Hulett to hold at third long after midnight Tuesday, and, suddenly, there it was last night in the chill and wind of a sudden autumn on the Chesapeake Bay: The First Unimportant Game at Camden Yards.

The last first.

Let's just say no one was lining up for a keepsake copy of that souvenir program.

Yes, the Orioles had a long run and a good run this season. A better run than anyone imagined possible. But then there was Hulett stuck on third in the middle of the night, and there was nothing left to say except what the Romans said in the end: "Oh, well."

Such white-flagging was still premature right up until the last out Tuesday. Sure, the Orioles' sad September had left them in distress. They were all but out of it after losing three of four in Milwaukee last weekend. But there was still the wee likelihood of a nova. They could sweep this three-game series with the Blue Jays and make it interesting.

Of course, as any baseball sabermatrican can tell you, it is extremely difficult to fashion a sweep after losing the first game. So there was manager Johnny Oates wearing a smile and a black satin jacket during batting practice yesterday, his team six games out with 12 to play, trailing two hot teams. Oates, an innate optimist, came as close as he ever will to admitting defeat.

"Sooner or later, you have to start facing the music," he said. "You have to be realistic."

Who knows what would have happened had Ripken Sr. sent Hulett homeward? The bases were loaded with one out in the bottom of the ninth. The Orioles were down a run. A rain delay had pushed the game past midnight. Mark McLemore poked a fly into short center. Hulett tagged up and broke toward home. Senior held him. Mike Devereaux flied out to end the game.

Senior angrily defended himself afterward; he said he "guaranteed" that Jays center fielder Devon White would have thrown Hulett out. But White's throw was poor, up the line 10 feet. It was not difficult to find members of the organization criticizing Senior's call yesterday.

The opinion here? Send him home. Make the other team make the play. Make your breaks.

In the final reckoning of this season, though, it will not matter what Senior did. The Orioles did not lose the division because Hulett got held at third. You don't lose it when you're down to your last shard of hope. You're already gone by then.

The Orioles played .500 ball after mid-May. They lost too many home games to teams buried in the standings, particularly the Yankees. When the season reached September and it was time to shed pretense, they were lapped by the Jays and Brewers. They left too many runners on base.

"Situational hitting," Oates was saying.

That is baseball doublespeak for hitting in the clutch. Delivering under pressure.

"Man on third and less than two outs," Oates defined.

He was lamenting the Orioles' failings in such situations this year. This was before the First Unimportant Game, when, as a rule, managers start summing up seasons. Oates was talking about the improvement in the starting pitching and base running, two of his three points of concern before the season. But then there was that third point.

"Situational hitting is 99.9 percent mental," Oates said. "It's going up there thinking about the situation and how you're going to approach it. Being smart."

Left unsaid, but obvious, was his belief that such was the Orioles' margin of defeat this season. Probably so. They are batting just three points lower than the Jays, but have scored 71 fewer runs. Ouch.

Anyway, there was still a game to play last night and another full house showed up and made a lot of noise, and this time Devereaux cleared the bases with a double, and the Orioles were sharp and alert and beat the Jays, 4-1. But what it meant was that the Brewers were down to 3 1/2 games out.

That's all.

"What about the race?" someone asked the Orioles manager afterward.

"Well," Oates said, "we're way back."

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