The Orioles played like April fools just long enough to make everyone wonder. Is it possible they are not the division contenders everyone assumed they would be?
It is a difficult question made more difficult by the schizophrenic nature of baseball. One day, the Orioles are 5-13 and wondering if the next team meeting is going to require sleeping bags. Three days later, they are in the midst of a three-game winning streak that has revived the despairing public.
Nevertheless, the team that was supposed to challenge the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League East title needed a three-game losing streak from the Cleveland Indians to get out of the cellar. The season may not be more than four weeks old, but the Orioles have cut the other division hopefuls a lot of slack.
On April 26, they were 7 1/2 games out of first place, farther back than the team had been at any point in the 1992 season. It was on that night that manager Johnny Oates called a post-game team meeting that didn't let out for nearly two hours, but it was not until the team returned to Camden Yards two days later that things took an upward turn.
If the Orioles have begun to play to their potential, it is only after the players -- and the fans -- had three weeks to wonder if the team was as good as advertised.
"I don't think it would be realistic to say that doesn't runthrough your mind," said pitcher Mike Mussina. "But if you do think that, you've got to go out and prove to yourself and everybody else that you're wrong."
Oates insists that such a thought has never entered his mind. He concedes that the rocky start has been a major source of frustration and disappointment, but says he has remained confident in the ultimate emergence of the Orioles as a contending club.
"I've never doubted it for a second," he said. "I know we're not a 7-13 club. Somewhere over the course of a 162-game season, I would be willing to bet that every team in baseball will go through a 7-13 streak.
"I can't speak for the players. I don't know what their mental approach is. But I think if you are at this level, you should have confidence in your ability. We have basically the same club that we had last year."
There have been changes, all intended to take the team to a
higher level than it achieved in 1992. The Orioles were one of the surprise teams, running neck-and-neck with the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays for most of the season, but they did not have enough offensive punch to sustain their drive in September.
Hemond preaches calm
The Orioles acquired veteran designated hitter Harold Baines and signed free-agent second baseman Harold Reynolds to solidify the offensive lineup, but ranked among the lowest scoring teams in the American League in April. If that was cause for panic, general manager Roland Hemond continued to preach calm.
"I still feel we have a very talented club," Hemond said. "You don't on April 29 say you're not very good because things aren't going well. I've been in other situations like this. The '83 White Sox club went 16-24 in the first 40 games, and we [the White Sox] got going and won 99 games. The [World Series champion] Baltimore club that year had two seven-game losing streaks. That's all part of baseball."
Hemond has to hope that history can repeat. He presided over several personnel changes that have altered the chemistry of the team, leaving himself open to criticism if the season goes sour.
The Orioles released easy-going first baseman Randy Milligan and replaced fiery second baseman Bill Ripken and hard-nosed Joe Orsulak, all fan favorites whose contribution to the collective personality of the 1992 team was significant. The club acquired Baines and Reynolds, who are just beginning to assert themselves at the plate.
None of this is lost on Hemond, but he is not second-guessing himself.
"You can't look at it that way," he said. "When you make moves, you evaluate them at the time you make them. Yes, we've got new players, so there is going to be an adjustment period. That's what the long season is all about. That's what makes it the challenge that it is.
"Some people might have said, 'Where was the chemistry in September last year, when we didn't do anything?' You have to be supportive and positive even though sometimes it doesn't look good."
Still, it is a legitimate question: Did the organization and a host of preseason prognosticators overestimate the potential of the team? One prominent outside observer doesn't think so.
"We thought they were a good club, and we still think they are," said Minnesota Twins general manager Andy MacPhail, who knows first-hand that a slow start does not necessarily mean a blown season. The Twins started 2-9 in 1991 and came back to win the World Series.
"It's a marathon, and you can't win a marathon in the first mile of the race. I don't think anybody in that division looks unassailable. Detroit whaled on us, but that's the same crew we've been beating for the past three years."