History tells O's to keep eyes on (playing) ball


August 09, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

There is more than a little touch of irony connected to the fact that Mike Mussina's next scheduled start is Friday night, when major-league baseball players are scheduled to go on strike.

Part of his preparation while the Orioles are in New York will be to take in tomorrow's negotiating session. The toughest part of his job will be keeping himself, and his teammates, focused on baseball instead of business.

That's a term -- staying focused -- you hear a lot in baseball. So much, in fact, you might wonder why it is so difficult. After winning his 16th game Sunday afternoon, Mussina acknowledged players are having a tough time concentrating on the games.

The gifted right-hander is learning one of the unpleasant facts of baseball life. Once a strike date is set, and a work stoppage takes on an inevitable appearance, minds start to wander.

As the Orioles' player representative, Mussina is charged with keeping his teammates updated about the status of the non-negotiations. Like those before him, he is finding out it is not a fun job.

If the season is to be completed, Mussina also will find out that the teams able to maintain their focus on playing rather than walking will reap the most benefits. If time permits, he could get a history lesson from Mark Belanger.

In 1981, as the Orioles' player representative, Belanger was almost as deeply involved in the labor negotiations as he is today as assistant to Don Fehr, the executive director of the players association. He could tell Mussina that, as important as it is to keep abreast of the issues, it is equally vital to be good Boy Scouts and stay prepared.

The Orioles won 28 of their first 42 games (a .667 pace) in 1981, then faded faster than a quarter-horse running in the Kentucky Derby. They became more focused on the issues than wins and losses.

One of the key players on that team was Ken Singleton, who led the AL in hitting through most of the first half of what eventually became a split season. He finished with a .278 average (Carney Lansford won the batting title with a .335 mark) and later said he abandoned his workout schedule after becoming convinced play would not resume.

The 1981 Orioles were a veteran team, more so than the current club, but nobody was experienced in dealing with a strike. That hasn't changed -- these things have a way of happening once in a career.

Singleton now broadcasts games for the Montreal Expos, and one can't help but wonder if that team hasn't drawn on his unpleasant experience in 1981.

The Expos have the best record in the major leagues and have been able to keep the throttle wide open, winning 10 of their past 11 games.

If the Orioles need any advice on the darker side of the game, they also can turn to the broadcast booth. John Lowenstein, Jim Palmer and Mike Flanagan were all members of the 1981 team that began to disintegrate as negotiations broke down.

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