Vagabond O's find a home, but lose well-traveled excuse

February 17, 1996|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- No excuses.

Sounds like one of those advertising slogans.

Maybe it is, come to think of it.

But it's also the story of the Orioles' 1996 season, which began yesterday with pitchers and catchers working out briefly at Fort Lauderdale Stadium -- the Orioles' first real spring training home in six years.

Finally, they have a place to play home games, spread out across three diamonds, and work on fundamentals.

No more O (give them a home). No more all-road spring schedule. No more scrounging around like semipros looking for a place to get in an extra hour's work.

In other words, say goodbye to yet another familiar excuse for losing.

The last one, in fact.

Roland Hemond, Phil Regan, Johnny Oates, Eli Jacobs -- can't use them anymore.

The lack of a cleanup hitter, the inexperienced bullpen, the inconsistent starting rotation -- can't use those anymore.

The homeless spring -- can't use that anymore.

Can't use anything.

Whiners, beware! You're entering a no-excuse zone.

The owner spends big, the general manager is the best business, the manager is on record as a winner and the roster is all but bursting with talent, new and old. ("It's like I got traded," pitcher Mike Mussina said yesterday in a clubhouse full of new teammates.)

And now, at last, the Orioles have a home in which to lay the proper foundation for the season.

No excuses.

"It's like all the pieces of a puzzle have come together," catcher Chris Hoiles said yesterday.

Injuries are the only X factor, the only potentially legitimate explanation for this team stumbling again and failing to make the postseason for the 13th straight season.

Otherwise . . .

"The guys are pretty excited to get going," Hoiles said. "Who wouldn't be excited? The front office has done a great job, the team looks great, we have a place to play. Hey, we even have lockers this year."

He was kidding, of course: the players weren't so forsaken that they didn't have lockers at their old spring training digs in Sarasota and St. Petersburg. Things weren't that unprofessional.

But it was a bad situation, no doubt. The team had only one field

and no batting cages in St. Petersburg and spent most of the spring on the road.

"It was crazy," said Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' scout in the Dominican Republic, who puts on a uniform and helps coach the young players in the spring.

Crazy, indeed. While the other teams worked on bunt defense, outfield relays and other fundamentals in morning sunshine, the Orioles were in a bus motoring along on an interstate.

"We just didn't have the time to get in the necessary work," Hoiles said. "Sometimes when we went somewhere we would even go so far as to find another field away from the park to squeeze in more time in the morning before the game began in the afternoon."

Brother, can you help the Orioles?

The situation was particularly bad in '91 and '95, when the Orioles didn't play a single home game down here. Every day meant another bus trip.

"Those happen to be the two worst seasons we've had since I've been here," Mussina said.

Coincidence or correlation? No one ever knew for sure.

"I don't know if it was ever a major, major issue," Hoiles said. "But it was somewhat important, particularly last year when we had the short spring [because of the strike]. I do think we were legitimately behind on the fundamentals when we started last year. And it showed once the season began."

You won't hear that excuse anymore. Although it is weird to find the Orioles camped out in a place the Yankees called home for years (the parking attendants and ticket takers would yell at you, like you were at the real Yankee Stadium), the Orioles have plenty of room to get their work done.

"Three fields, batting cages, pitching machines," Hoiles said. "We'll be able to split up the coaches and the squad and get three or four things done at the same time."

Just like the other teams have been doing all these years.

Yesterday, the pitchers and catchers sprinted onto the field shortly after noon and shortly before a huge thunderstorm drowned out the rest of practice. But with six batteries going at the same time, all scheduled work was completed.

"It's a nice arrangement here," manager Davey Johnson said after his first day on the job. "It doesn't seem that different [from any other major-league camp site], to be honest. But it must seem like heaven to the guys who were here before."

It does.

Say goodbye to Standard Excuse No. 4 for yet another lousy Orioles season.

Things are different this year.

Real different.

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