Orioles still dressing for the big show

KEN ROSENTHAL

September 24, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CLEVELAND -- Paul Carey drew the most snickers in a bowling shirt, baby blue jacket and black-and-white plaid high-water pants. Mike Oquist looked nearly as ridiculous in a yellow jacket and green pants.

This was in the visiting clubhouse after Wednesday night's 4-2 loss to Cleveland, a game in which two Orioles runners were thrown out at home plate, a game that marked the end of a disastrous 3-6 road trip.

Carey and Oquist were the victims of a clubhouse prank, along with fellow rookies John O'Donoghue and Kevin McGehee. But they weren't the only Orioles all dressed up with no place to go.

"I know you're trying to have fun, but we just got our butts hTC kicked," first-base coach Davey Lopes said to chief suspect Rick Sutcliffe and several players gathered near his locker. "Now cool it."

In another corner of the clubhouse, a young player whispered, "Now isn't the time for this." It sure didn't seem like it, not after a loss that kept the Orioles 5 1/2 games back with 10 to play.

Too tight one minute, too loose the next, streaky to the end. Suffice it to say that this is a team still in search of its identity. It doesn't know how to act in a pennant race. Not coincidentally, it doesn't know how to win one, either.

And so we begin the Homestand To End All Homestands, an anticlimactic exercise if there ever was one. For weeks, the Orioles have pointed to this 10-game stretch as their salvation. Instead, it looms as a symbol of what might have been.

For the most part, the clowning around Wednesday night was harmless. The more serious problem is the Orioles' belief that they can pretend they're in a pennant race, then check the

standings after 162 games to see if they won the division.

Manager Johnny Oates encourages that approach -- one series at a time, etc. -- and perhaps it's the right one for this team. Oates knows he was too tense last September and for much of this season. At times, the Orioles reflected his mood, and now he wants to reduce the pressure on his younger players.

The problem is, championship teams raise their level of play in September -- see the Toronto Blue Jays, or the Atlanta Braves. Of course, such teams feature enough impact players to make dramatic stretch runs possible. The Orioles do not.

Someday soon, it might all change, but for now, this club remains a work in progress. The dressing down of the rookies didn't offer any great insight into the Orioles' character. But it's obvious they're not ready to wear the emperor's clothes.

Do they even get it? It didn't appear that way Wednesday night, but boys will be boys, especially in a major-league clubhouse. Indeed, it's not unusual for veterans to confiscate the dress clothes of rookies and replace them with outrageous get-ups to be worn on the team plane.

As Sutcliffe noted, "It's kind of become a tradition around here" -- that is, since he joined the team last year. Actually, the Orioles' rookies got off easy. The Boston Red Sox annually force their rookies to wear women's dresses through customs in Toronto.

Such pranks require extensive pre-game preparation. Sutcliffe and his cohorts had no way to know whether the Orioles would win or lose Wednesday night. The idea was to break the tension, and make the rookies feel like part of the team.

Bad timing? Obviously, it turned out that way, but surely no one confused the message. Sutcliffe is perhaps the Orioles' fiercest competitor. Lopes' outburst was classic old-school, but nearly every player enjoyed the spectacle.

Gregg Olson assisted McGehee with his tie. Lonnie Smith pointed to Carey and burst out laughing. Tim Hulett joked that two sportswriters dressed in their normal attire also were victims of the gag.

For their part, the rookies seemed thrilled by the attention -- except for Dominican shortstop Manny Alexander, who did not appreciate the humor, and apparently demanded that his clothes be returned.

Shortly after the game, Alexander could be heard talking in Spanish to bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks about "la ropa" -- the clothes. No one intended to upset him. He got everything back.

Four other rookies -- Jack Voigt, Damon Buford, Sherman Obando and Brad Pennington -- were spared the embarrassment. Earlier this season, they were forced to wear camouflage flying home from Detroit.

Carey, Oquist, O'Donoghue and McGehee -- they all looked like they walked out of a thrift shop. In a sense, it was the perfect metaphor for the final days of the Eli Jacobs era. After all, you can't wear rags and expect to go to the prom.

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