Fantastic finish turns to Big Tease

JOHN EISENBERG

September 25, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

A cool autumn breeze was blowing steadily at a little after 6 o'clock on the first night of the last homestand of 1993, a perfect night for high school football, when Johnny Oates raised the Orioles' latest version of a white flag:

"Mike Mussina," the manager said, standing on the field in the gathering dusk, "will not pitch again this season."

Devastating news, ordinarily. The Orioles without Mussina are, well, it doesn't matter anymore, does it? No. The news doesn't matter. The games don't matter. The entire homestand doesn't matter.

Welcome to the Big Tease. The last homestand. The homestand that was going to be so huge and, at the very most, isn't.

The Big Tease. The biggest local disappointment since, well, at least since the Rhinos.

From the moment the schedule was released last winter, this was the moment to which all pointed.

The division title was going to be decided here. The Tigers, Yankees and infernal Blue Jays were ending the season here. Everyone fought to back-end their partial plans. And. . .

What happened? Boston happened. And Milwaukee. And Cleveland. The Orioles were right there, and then, a couple of days later, they weren't. A 3-6 road trip, in concert with the Jays' nine-game winning streak, effectively ended the season.

Of course, because of the sliver of hope that exists until a team is officially eliminated, mad math has been a particularly popular sport around town the past few days. This actual conversation was overheard last night:

"If the Birds win all 10 games on the homestand, what do the Jays have to do?"

"Well, if they go 4-6, we end up in a tie."

"So, we make the playoffs if we go 10-0 and win the playoff game, right?"

"Right."

Right. And Larry Lucchino is going to donate the ticket profits from these last 10 games to charity.

Anyway, the usual sellout crowd did show up last night, reaffirming one of the great truths of sports: When you stand in line in zero-degree weather to buy your tickets nine months ahead of time, you show up. Regardless of what happens.

The atmosphere was anything but electric, though. The "O" cry in the national anthem was weak. The Orioles were met with just a light round of applause at the start. That the Blue Jays won again, and the Orioles were shut out again, certainly didn't help. ("Let's see, if the Orioles win their last nine and the Jays lose seven of nine and SkyDome burns down, it's a tie. . .")

That's the Big Tease. The homestand could have been a blast. Huge. One of the better endings to a season in years. And what a break: You figure to catch such favorable scheduling maybe once a decade. But now, it's wasted. Now, all that's left to do is to decipher what went wrong. Why did the Orioles come up short again?

"All year, we get right to the point of doing something big, and just never seem to get over the hump," said Jamie Moyer, last night's hard-luck losing pitcher. "Why that is the case, I have no idea."

The easy way out is to point to the last road trip, to leads blown in Boston, to weak hitting in Milwaukee. But the fact is that the season was not lost on that trip. It was lost long before.

It was lost in early June, when Bill Haselman charged Mussina and the brawl of the year ensued. Mussina was injured and never the same, and, without a No. 1 performance from its No. 1 pitcher, the club's compass was always shaky.

The season was lost in May, when Mike Devereaux injured his shoulder. He was never the same, and the offense was stretched too thin.

The season was lost in late July, when the Braves beat the Orioles to Fred McGriff, the one player who could have made a difference.

The season was even lost as early as last winter, when an owner headed for bankruptcy refused to put out the money for the power-hitting outfielder who was so badly needed.

The result was a streaky, inconsistent team unable to sustain a run long enough to so much as scare the Jays. That's what went wrong: The better team won. The Orioles didn't blow it at the end. They were lucky to be as close as they were.

That's not to say that, in spite of it all, they couldn't have made this final homestand more than just a Big Tease. But now, all that's left is nine more days of playing out the string.

"I think this team is professional enough that they'll go out and play hard," Oates said after the game.

Another white flag. More to come.

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