Why aren't O's better? It's more than pitching

On Baseball

June 16, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Think about all the Boston Red Sox have been through -- their lousy start, manager Kevin Kennedy changing closers, second basemen and center fielders faster than George Steinbrenner used to change his manager.

Jose Canseco got hurt, and so did Kevin Mitchell. Wil Cordero broke his leg, an injury that may keep him from making a significant contribution this year. They led the American League in errors for more than two months.

Now think about this: Since April 17, the Red Sox have a better record (26-25) than the Orioles (24-26). That's an embarrassment. In fact, it's somewhat ridiculous that the Orioles aren't leading the AL East, a more mediocre division than any other than the National League Central.

Oh, sure, the Orioles have had a few troubles that weren't of their own making. Armando Benitez went on the disabled list with a small tear in an elbow ligament, and that hurt the bullpen depth. B. J. Surhoff sprained his ankle, and to lose a gamer like Surhoff hurts.

But the Orioles haven't suffered a traumatic injury like the Yankees, who lost ace David Cone. The Orioles throw out a lineup of All-Stars every day, the Blue Jays throw out fading stars or inexperienced youngsters, and Toronto has lost only three games in the standings to the Orioles in two months.

The Orioles have six players who may drive in 100 runs, and they are losing ground. They have the player that probably would win the AL Most Valuable Player award if the vote were taken today, in Roberto Alomar. Closer Randy Myers has been solid, Roger McDowell pitched well in middle relief. Brady Anderson is going so well that he's being asked if his bat is corked, and they are losing ground.

Statistics show that the starting pitching is the most tangible reason this team is suffering, having allowed 104 runs in 103 1/3 innings through Thursday's 10-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals.

But there is something obviously wrong with this team, beyond the numbers. It's easy to say that the Orioles are underachieving because they have a collection of millionaires, and it would be untrue. Surhoff, Alomar and Cal Ripken are millionaires several times over and they play to win every single day. Myers is a millionaire, and every day he is in the weight room preparing for his next appearance. McDowell is a millionaire, and if you come out early to the park, chances are you'll see him running in the outfield. Alan Mills is a millionaire, and he shags in early batting practice just about every chance he gets.

It would be easy to say that this team was thrown together like a collection of Rotisserie players, and that, too, would be untrue. Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and manager Davey Johnson didn't dive recklessly into the free-agent market, as the Yankees often have done.

Their three biggest additions were Alomar, Surhoff and Myers, who have been good, and they traded for a pitcher, David Wells, whom Johnson knew firsthand. They traded two decent prospects for Kent Mercker, using the sound logic that he might thrive when given a chance to start every fifth day.

It would be easy to point the finger at Johnson and his staff; Johnson admitted last week that his inexperience in this league has hurt him, that perhaps he didn't fully comprehend the difficulty Bobby Bonilla would have making the transition to being a designated hitter. But that might just be Johnson assuming responsibility even if he isn't at fault, something he does in an almost knee-jerk way.

It would be easy to say that Johnson's discussion of moving Ripken to third has shaken the stability of this team to the point where it isn't effective, but that would be absurd -- Johnson only considered that move because the team, and Ripken, weren't playing well.

There are no simple answers to explain some of the things that have transpired. For an inning or two, the Orioles' talent can seem overwhelming, with Anderson, Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Bonilla hammering away. And then there are times when they look uninspired and uninterested.

Wells was so blatant in his indifference on the mound a couple of weeks ago that his former manager, Sparky Anderson, chastised him for it the next day. There was a play at first base last Sunday in which neither Palmeiro nor the pitcher, Arthur Rhodes, hustled to cover first and the runner was safe. Brady Anderson was thrown out at third attempting to advance on a fly ball last weekend, the third out in the inning, with the Orioles trailing 12-9. Strange.

And in the Detroit series, a number of players simply did not run hard to first base on fly balls and grounders. In fact, Ripken, Surhoff and Jeffrey Hammonds are the only everyday players on this team who run hard every time; this team might be among the most stylish, but they would rank last in the AL in body language.

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