O's litmus test looks positive Team chemistry: Changes in clubhouse, beginning with Johnson, appear to put Orioles in a winning frame of mind.

February 19, 1996|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles have assembled an impressive 1996 roster, but talent isn't everything. The baseball season, as much as anything else, is a chemistry experiment, and assembling a championship team is not an exact science.

Orioles general manager Pat Gillick knows this. So does manager Davey Johnson. Both have experience putting together winning clubs -- and no other current combination of GM and manager has had more success -- but that doesn't make it any easier to put a finger on what precisely makes for good team chemistry.

"When you talk about chemistry, I think it starts with the manager and coaching staff and how we treat the players," Johnson said. "I think it also has to do with the makeup of the individuals and their ability to lead by example. With the veteran players we have, guys like Cal Ripken, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and [Roberto] Alomar, my job is easier because there's plenty of leadership on the field."

The Orioles had some of the same players last year, and no one ever accused the club of having great chemistry, but the equation is more complex than that. Leadership is just one aspect. Environment is another, and it may be equally important.

"I'm basically a happy person," Johnson said. "I think that if you're going to concentrate as hard as you need to to perform at the level you need to perform, you can't afford a lot of extra stress. I want guys to want to come here. That's important. We're going to be together for eight months. This [the clubhouse] is their home for most of the year.

"That kind of attitude leads to a better performance. I want them to have a relationship with me. They need to know that I care about them."

In defense of the 1995 club, it never really got a chance to develop a winning chemistry. The opening of spring training was delayed by baseball's labor crisis and condensed to little more than three weeks. Not much time for rookie manager Phil Regan to acquaint himself with the players or to command the respect that Johnson rates merely on his track record.

"With three weeks of spring training and a whole new coaching staff, nobody knew much about anybody," said veteran catcher Chris Hoiles. "We never got to know each other. We were never in a position to exploit each person's best parts. That was a problem as far as chemistry. We didn't really jell until late in the season."

Factor in the team's unsettled spring training situation, and it's little wonder that the Orioles again got off to an uninspired start. This year, with a full six weeks and the team ensconced in an all-purpose facility for the duration, should be different.

Another infusion of veteran talent certainly will help. Alomar has a couple of World Series rings and is considered one of the best all-around players in the game. Left-hander Kent Mercker won a World Series last year with the Atlanta Braves. Closer Randy Myers has been on world title teams with the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds. David Wells played on two pennant winners and a world title team in Toronto. And the list doesn't end there.

"You can have good chemistry, and sometimes you still don't have enough to win," said outfielder Bobby Bonilla, who played on several division champions in Pittsburgh. "But here, it's going to be wonderful. We still have to play the game on the field, but we've got a bunch of quiet superstars who know how to win. I'm looking forward to having a lot of fun."

Perhaps the clubhouse was too quiet a year ago, but that probably won't be a problem this year. The addition of free spirits such as Wells, Myers and Roger McDowell promises to keep the clubhouse lively and contribute to the comfortable environment that Johnson hopes to create.

"I don't think I was brought here to be the court jester," McDowell said, "but I think personality has something to do with it. I was brought here to get people out. Whatever else is gravy. My main goal is to help the team win, whatever small contribution I can make."

If the intangible concept of team chemistry is difficult to define, it is not hard to detect. Some clubs clearly have it. Most don't.

"I don't call it chemistry . . . I call it spirit," said player development director Syd Thrift. "If you've been around baseball a long time, you can walk into a clubhouse and know whether it's a winning team or a losing team. There's something special about the air of a winning clubhouse."

It might be a little early to make that evaluation here, but Thrift isn't afraid to focus some 20-20 hindsight on the 1995 team. Expectations were high when that club went to spring training, but he says now that he could tell from the outset that it was not a championship team.

"I could see it wasn't anything but a .500 team at best," he said.

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