Nightmares don't last forever Orioles had to wake up sometime

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 29, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

In 1982, the Orioles started 6-12, and contended until the final day of the season. In '83, they endured two seven-game losing streaks, and won the World Series.

The '83 Chicago White Sox were 16-24. They won the AL West by a record 20 games. The '91 Minnesota Twins were 2-9. They, too, won the World Series.

Baseball history is replete with such lessons. It's a 162-game season. A good team need not panic at 6-13, even when its start matches the third-worst in club history.

So much can change, so quickly.

Last night the Orioles exploded for a season-high eight runs in an 8-4 victory over the Twins. Seven of the runs came with two outs, including a three-run home run by Cal Ripken.

As Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said yesterday, "We didn't become a bad ballclub in three weeks. They'll make us proud before this is all through, I'm sure."

Hemond is optimistic even in the worst of times, but he can't help but recall his stunning turnaround with the '83 White Sox, a team that played lethargically until June.

Did Hemond fire Tony La Russa? Of course not. He simply waited for the club to perform to its ability, the same way he will with this team.

It's a time-tested method -- just ask the Twins. Manager Tom Kelly still isn't sure why his team started so slowly in '91. But both he and GM Andy MacPhail knew the Twins weren't as bad as 2-9.

"It's just one of those things you've got to fight your way through," Kelly said last night. "You can have all the meetings you want, do all the screaming you want, but it's not going to be over until it's over."

It ended for those Twins, and maybe now it will end for these Orioles. MacPhail recalls speculation that both he and Kelly might be fired in '91. Fortunately for the Twins, no such thing occurred.

By then, MacPhail had learned his lesson. His team got off to a slow start the year after winning the '87 World Series, and he made a disastrous trade that April, acquiring Tom Herr for Tom Brunansky.

"Reacting that quickly and not giving things a chance to settle in -- it's a mistake I don't care to repeat," said MacPhail, who faces

a similar temptation with the Twins at 8-12. "You've got to let things cook a little bit."

In other words, you don't rush prospects that need seasoning. You don't make trades that will prove haunting. And you don't fire a manager who is gifted enough to lead your team into the 21st century.

In short, you calm down.

FTC The Orioles might not be as good as so many forecast, but they're not as bad as they played in their first 18 games. Before last night's game, Kelly read off their lineup. "Nothing wrong with that," he said.

"They have a solid ballclub," Kelly said. "They've got solid pitching, and the guy at the end knows how to get hitters out. I saw that firsthand in Japan [over the winter]. We've seen it over the years."

The guy at the end is -- or was -- Gregg Olson. When last we left the Otter, he was near tears after learning of a temporary demotion. His overreaction was a classic example of the tension gripping this team.

Olson thought manager Johnny Oates was permanently removing him as the closer. Oates set him straight the next day, emphasizing that the Orioles couldn't win the division without Olson earning 35 to 40 saves.

"I took it to a further extreme than necessary," Olson said. "That's why it was so crushing. When I walked out of there, it was like, 'It was over.' "

It wasn't over, not for him, and not for the club. Olson will regain his job. The offense will average better than 3.4 runs per game. And surely this team will stop making so many stupid mistakes.

Not that there aren't concerns -- the uncertainty in right field, the lack of a true No. 4 hitter, the inconsistent starting pitching. Right now, even the two Harolds -- Reynolds and Baines -- look like feeble additions.

For Baines, who had an RBI single last night, this is a normal start -- he's a .251 career hitter in April, his lowest average for one month.

Reynolds, however, is hitting poorly, throwing worse and pulling stunts like covering second with a runner in motion on a 3-2 count and two outs.

Reynolds said yesterday that he thought the count was 2-2 when he blundered Tuesday night, but described his mistake as "inexcusable." Is he as bad a player as he looks? It's hard to believe.

Reynolds admitted he pressed the first week, with the Orioles facing Texas and Bill Ripken, and then his former team in Seattle. Now, he said, "I'm making mistakes like I did in A ball."

It all gets magnified when a team is losing.

But eventually, it must end.

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