The West is how the O's have won

June 04, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Mark it down, because if the Orioles win the division, the West Coast trip was the turning point. This was the week they turned an emotional corner, the week they stopped yawning at the world, the week they finally grew up.

"Who's going to lead us?"

Former manager Johnny Oates asked that question in a rage a year ago, and got fired looking for an answer. Phil Regan was luckier. The Orioles went into such a stupor at the start of his tenure, they disgusted even themselves.

Who's going to lead them?

Suddenly, there's a plethora of candidates. Mike Mussina, the pitcher who spoke his mind. Rafael Palmeiro, the first baseman who bought the self-help T-shirts. Ben McDonald, the Rick Sutcliffe disciple. Even Chris Hoiles.

Cal Ripken?

Yes, he fits into the equation, too. Ripken is not a classic leader, never has been, never will be. In fact, his intensely analytical approach helped create the emotional void that too often holds back this team.

The Orioles follow Ripken's lead, and 99 percent of the time, it's a good thing. They play hard. They play hurt. They play smart. But they also play like robots. Their game face is a blank stare.

The approach works for Ripken, who has the game down to such a science, passion becomes an almost unwanted variable. He's oh-so-logical, the Orioles' Mr. Spock.

Until yesterday, he wouldn't even address his teammates' remarks.

"I thought a lot of it was frustration," Ripken said after his fifth-inning grand slam lifted the Orioles to a 9-5 victory over Oakland. "All of us have frustrations.

"When things aren't going good, you're constantly searching for one reason or another. It's not so easy to find one reason is another. But the fact of the matter is, everyone cares about winning here.

"Maybe the show of frustration was a show of caring. Without analyzing everything that was said, the thing you should take from it is that we all want to win. We were tired of losing."

And so they have won four straight, their longest winning streak of the season. Ripken cares, they all care. But maybe now they're developing an edge. Maybe now, they'll show some spine in September.

Ripken plays on such an elite level, these issues are practically moot, but less talented players often need emotion to elevate their game. Even McDonald puts himself in that category, and he was a No. 1 draft pick.

This isn't about kicking water coolers, arguing with umpires, shaking fists at opponents -- all of that stuff is overrated in baseball. The season is too long. The game is too humbling. The profession requires an even approach.

But even is one thing, and flat is another. The Orioles played soft in recent pennant races, but their breakdown was even more severe during their 11-18 start. They had no feel for each other, no sense of purpose, no sense of team.

"One factor I wasn't aware of going into spring training was that we have a lot of new faces," Ripken said. "With new faces comes -- I don't want to say a learning curve -- but a period of time when you get to know everyone.

"Now that [Jeff] Manto is playing regularly at third, I've got Manto new to my right and [Bret] Barberie new to my left. It takes time to learn each other, positioning, what we want to do together. That's not always easy.

"I didn't really look at it over the winter. I assumed we had the same nucleus. But I realized when we got to spring training, out of the 25-man roster, I don't know what the change was, but it was a lot."

The game has changed since the '60s, '70s and '80s, when the Orioles were remarkably cohesive, and won championships. This team is still in transition. Curtis Goodwin just got here. Armando Benitez might soon be gone.

The shortened spring training certainly didn't help a club that needed time to gel, and with a new manager and coaching staff, perhaps it was inevitable the Orioles would start slowly. But Mussina, for one, didn't like what he saw. That's why he spoke out.

Someone had to, and it wasn't going to be Ripken. The Orioles are paying him $30 million. Perhaps he should take more responsibility, act as a spokesman, call team meetings. But it just isn't his style.

Ripken leads in his way, positioning the defense, privately counseling teammates. Last week, this team needed more. Mussina's comments could have proven divisive. Instead, they rallied the club.

Palmeiro bought the T-shirts that said, "It's not how good you are, it's how bad you want it." It was a small thing, but Palmeiro is sick of losing after playing for the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers. He, too, was fed up.

"I'm still not going to be a rah-rah guy," said Palmeiro, whose longtime rival, Will Clark, is despised by many for taking that approach. "That's not the kind of thing we need around here.

"Mike said a few things, and it was a wake-up call. I got the T-shirts and gave them to everybody. It was time to get going. You can't sit back and let things happen."

So, is he now a leader?

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