Wrong about O's? Join blameless club

JOHN EISENBERG

May 30, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles' bad start got you down? Making you feel dumb for being so optimistic? I don't want to hear about it.

You can ease out of it. You can say, well, I couldn't pick 'em to win the division when I was so worried about Ben and Glenn, you know, and I did wonder if Brady could do it again, and blah blah Olson's curve blah. Who'll know if you're fibbing?

Me? I'm stuck. As stuck as the Beatles were stuck with Ringo.

Just like you, I thought the suckers were going to win the division. Only I went and wrote it in the newspaper.

Yes. Well. Seen any good movies lately?

There's nothing I can do. I could blame an editor, but how many times can you drink from that well? I could take a mulligan and try again (fourth?), but it doesn't work that way. I could just flat-out deny the thing, lie like a congressman on an expense account, but talk about a smoking gun: On March 31, the headline in this space was, "Who can argue with picking O's?"

OK, very funny.

(How do you know your luck is running bad? When you blow your homer prediction the day before April Fools' Day.)

The ballclub, as you know, has been in a bug-eyed free fall since the first pitch of the season, offering little reason to believe it might even contend, much less win. For you, it has just been disappointing. For me, it has been a crucible.

This is the question I keep coming back to: Was it me, or is it them? Did I blow the call, or are the Orioles letting me down? In other words, are the Orioles really a bad team, or just a good team playing badly?

There is evidence supporting both theses ("Excuse me, sir," you could ask, "but how could you possibly pick a team whose Nos. 3 and 4 hitters couldn't drive in a run with a 2-by-4 last year?"), but in the end, there is more evidence for the latter. The Orioles are a good team that has played badly. If I do say so myself.

See, the culprit is the first three weeks of the season, in which the Orioles lost 13 games and won but five. Since then, miraculously, they have a .500 record, the miracle undeniable because it was achieved without Harold Baines and Mike Devereaux and in spite of inconsistent defense, consistently horrible base running, little clutch hitting and virtually no hitting from the middle of the order. (Otherwise, everything is fine.)

In any case, it was those first three weeks that did the trick, and there is little denying that the Orioles were a good team playing badly then. Because it was their strength, their pitching, that let them down.

If the Orioles do somehow climb back into contention this year, it'll happen because they have the league's best bullpen and can throw a capable starter out there just about every night. Yet in the first three weeks, the bullpen lost five games and the starters were a combined 5-8. The staff ERA was among baseball's worst.

The pitching has leveled out nicely since then, which is why the club has been able to win despite repeatedly galling manager Johnny Oates with mistakes. And now that Baines and Devereaux are back, it'll be interesting to see if the club can mount a run to draw within sight of the leaders.

But see, right there we get back to the good-team-playing-badly bit. Baines and Devereaux are going to hit; you can be reasonably sure of that. But in the first 18 games, they were a combined .240 with 12 RBI. A serious problem.

Sure, the pick looks bad now, but I just don't think I blew it. (If I do say so myself.) I wasn't the only one who picked the Orioles. So did Sports Illustrated. Anyone who didn't pick them to win said second or, at the very worst, third. Everyone shot high. No one expected a bust.

In hindsight, some troubling signs did go ignored. A lot of things had to go right. Glenn Davis had to come back. Cal Ripken had to come back. Brady Anderson had to do it again. Rick Sutcliffe had to do it again. Arthur Rhodes had to improve. Ben McDonald had to improve. A team that didn't hit in September had to start hitting. Every team begins every season with a list of things that need to go right, and the Orioles' list was longer than most.

But picking them was no stretch, not at all. They won 89 games a year ago, and the two teams that finished above them got appreciably worse. It made sense.

It still makes sense that way.

Let's see what happens. It's not as if the Orioles are chasing some powerhouse. The Tigers aren't going to keep playing .650 ball. They probably don't have the pitching to win the division. Toronto is vulnerable. Cal Ripken isn't going to hit any worse. The thing is still wide-open.

And if it turns out that it's not open enough for the Orioles, don't blame me. To paraphrase a great American aphorism: It's their fault, not mine.

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