Off-season moves raise expectations for O's Signs OF A WINNER ORIOLES '94

April 01, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

Six months to the day after American League owners unanimously approved the sale of the Orioles, the Pope of Camden Yards will watch his human investments get down to business on Opening Day.

In such a short time, Orioles principal owner Peter Angelos has altered for the better the mood of a city already in love with its team, the game it plays and the stadium it calls home.

Now, the passion is accompanied by confidence. Where once September was feared, now it is anticipated brashly. The mood swing can be traced to a change in ownership.

Previous owner Eli Jacobs entered bankruptcy.

In contrast, Angelos swiftly backed up his stated intention to put a winner on the field by signing four free agents who have suited up for the All-Star Game a combined 12 times.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro and third baseman Chris Sabo strengthen a lineup that lacks only one ingredient, an easy out.

Angelos didn't stop there. He allowed general manager Roland Hemond to take a gamble on an injury-risk left-hander, Sid Fernandez, and talent-risk closer (considering his age, 36, and diminished fastball), Lee Smith.

As Angelos gazes down from his luxury box of a balcony on Monday, he will see this foursome to whom he guaranteed $43 million for the life of the contracts, though Fernandez is on the disabled list. Angelos also will see a team with a $37 million payroll for 1994.

What emerging star right-hander Ben McDonald sees and feels can't be quantified so easily.

"There is a different feeling, a different atmosphere," McDonald said. "It's no longer a feeling of 'We might win.' It's a feeling of 'We should win.' "

The foundation for the great expectations of 1994 predates Angelos. The core of the roster was assembled by the Orioles' scouting department and through what at the time seemed like minor trades or free-agent acquisitions by Hemond.

That took the Orioles only so far. A lack of well-timed dollars prevented them from taking the final stride into the postseason, where they have not ventured since 1983.

Now that that excuse has been removed, no alibi remains, save for the possibility of injuries.

Again, dollars help illustrate why the Orioles' optimism has merit.

When Johnny Oates became manager on May 23, 1991, his first batting order included but one player with a million-dollar salary. Besides Cal Ripken, Glenn Davis was the only position player with a seven-figure salary. When Oates took over, Davis was on the disabled list, where he did his best work for the Orioles.

Oates' Opening Day batting order against the Kansas City Royals has one player earning a salary of less than $1 million, and he might have the best earning potential.

Right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, the leading candidate for American League Rookie of the Year honors, also is the only hitter in the lineup who has not had a 70-RBI season in the major leagues. Seven of the nine hitters have had at least one 20-home run season.

Oates, the man charged with directing the talent into autumn, does not seek refuge from the expectations.

"This is the most responsibility I've been given in my 27 years in baseball," Oates said. "I played on [division-winning] teams five of the last six years of my career, but I was a .180-hitting backup catcher, so how much responsibility did I have then? This is a whole new ballgame."

A ballgame in which Oates is eager to play.

"It's a challenge I welcome," Oates said. "I detest a lack of responsibility. I get bored very easily. My wife said she can never see me retiring completely. Once the season is over, I'm always looking for something to do. I'll cut the grass twice in one day just to stay busy. Then I'll think about how I could have done it better."

Oates spent much of the spring swatting away questions centered on the added pressure to win.

Assistant general manager Frank Robinson, Oates' predecessor in the dugout, has heard the questions from afar with eyes rolled and memory rolling back a few years.

"How could a manager not be excited about the improvement of a ballclub?" Robinson said. "There is no more pressure on Johnny. There's less pressure. The pressure comes when they want you to win, and they don't give you the horses to do it."

In 1989, Robinson managed the Orioles to the biggest turnaround in club history, only to finish second to the Toronto Blue Jays (who else?) by two games.

"I'm excited for Johnny," Robinson said. "That's what every manager needs, the backing from management, the knowledge that if you really need a player to put you over the top, ownership will let you go out and get it. If you look back at '89, we didn't have that guarantee from management."

Keith Moreland was Robinson's pennant insurance in '89. Oates' late addition was Craig Lefferts in '92, when David Cone went to (where else?) Toronto. Moreland and Lefferts amounted to hired squirt guns.

Robinson scoffs at the notion the expectations will wear on Oates.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.