O's hope Musssine, McDonald, Rhodes bring back winning ways of '60s kids

THE NEW BABY BIRDS

April 02, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Orioles' front office would like to think that history is about to repeat itself. The Baby Birds of the 1960s helped launch the club's run of 24 winning seasons in 26 years. Now, a new core of young starters has emerged to try to do that all over again.

Remember those guys? Steve Barber, Milt Pappas, Chuck Estrada and, a little later, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer. Remember these guys -- Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes -- because they might go down in Orioles history the same way.

"I think it's a fair comparison," said Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who remembers well the solid pitching staffs that became a trademark of the franchise. "There are some similarities, except that this group probably has had more experience going into the season together."

The Baby Birds were assembled in the early '60s by Paul Richards, but the emphasis on developing young pitching carried on throughout the decade and built the Orioles into a perennial winner. It has been seven years since the organization's amazing string of 18 straight winning seasons ended -- and it has been a long seven years -- but the club is banking heavily on a pitching renaissance that began as the 1980s were ending.

It has taken five years to assemble the youthful nucleus of the current rotation. McDonald was the No. 1 choice in the 1989 June free-agent draft, but he had to overcome two years of physical setbacks before completing his first full season in the starting rotation last year. Rhodes was drafted out of high school a year earlier and spent four years in the organization before joining the rotation for good midway through last season. Mussina has been the biggest success story, emerging as a Cy Young Award candidate last year in only his second full season of professional ball.

The future is so bright, you have to wear shades, but assistant general manager Frank Robinson says that you also have to be realistic.

"When you start saying that you're trying to do what you did in the '60s and '70s, you're asking for trouble," he said. "It's difficult to make comparisons from one time to another. But, sure, we'd love to recapture that. We'd like to be considered like that again. When you have that kind of image, it means you have talent, not just at the major-league level but throughout the organization."

Star search

The Orioles have been on a talent hunt since the organization hit rock bottom in 1988. Rhodes was the first to arrive, but McDonald was considered the cornerstone of the current youth movement. He came to the Orioles as one of the most highly regarded college pitchers in history, only to have his development stunted by two years of physical setbacks.

McDonald had been with the major-league club for much of 1990 and '91, but he didn't really arrive until last year, when he finally stayed healthy long enough to put in a full season. It wasn't a perfect year by any means. He went 13-13 with a 4.24 ERA and gave up 32 home runs, a performance that paled next to the 18-5 season that vaulted Mussina into the national spotlight.

This year, McDonald says it will be his turn.

"No doubt about it," he said. "I've always expected a lot of myself, but I think this could be the breakthrough year when I win 15 to 18 games. I'm very positive right now. I had 28 starts last year where my ERA was 2.80 and another seven when it was over 9.00. I want to cut those bad outings in half this year. If I can do that, I'll give us a chance to win 32 games instead of 28."

It is hard to conceive of Mussina improving on his 1992 performance. He led the American League in winning percentage (.783) and his 2.54 ERA ranked third -- behind only Red Sox ace Roger Clemens and Kansas City's Kevin Appier. He already is being compared to Palmer, who spent less than a year in the minor leagues before arriving in Baltimore to begin his Hall of Fame career.

Rhodes was a tougher sell. He looked overmatched when the club brought him up midway through the 1991 season to join McDonald and Mussina in the revamped starting rotation, but he returned last summer looking far more polished and prepared. He went 7-5 in 15 starts and came to spring training this year with a place set aside for him on the 1993 staff.

This is the first time that all three of them will be starting the season together, but they will not have to go it alone.

Good and getting better

When veteran right-hander Rick Sutcliffe reported to spring training camp a year ago, one of the first things he noticed was the core of young talent that the club had brought to the major leagues. Mussina was just getting comfortable. McDonald was just getting healthy. Rhodes was just getting noticed. Sutcliffe was brought in to be their role model, but he would become their biggest cheerleader before the season was over.

This year, he sees them all settling in for the long haul.

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