When O's finally woke up, it helped Johnson sleep After trade deadline, team came together

September 30, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

His uniform soaked and his hair slick with champagne and beer, manager Davey Johnson paraded around the Orioles' clubhouse Saturday, joining in the revelry of winning a playoff berth, beaming his biggest smile since he took this job last November.

When the celebration was over, Johnson went to dinner with his wife, Susan, returned to the team hotel in the early evening -- and quickly fell asleep. It was an accomplishment for a man who has had trouble sleeping all season.

Johnson admitted in late July, when the Orioles were 51-52 and apparently in collapse, that he wasn't sleeping well, and no wonder: The bullpen was in shambles, the pitchers filling the fifth spot in the rotation hadn't won since May, and the Orioles were 12 games out of first and falling fast.

"We were a terrible team," pitcher Mike Mussina said. "We were a terrible team for a long time."

General manager Pat Gillick was in the process of considering trades before the July 31 deadline. Syd Thrift, the Orioles' director of player development, flew to Seattle to see what minor-leaguers the team could get for pitcher David Wells. Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone were on the phone daily with general managers from San Diego, San Francisco and Cincinnati discussing deals for Bobby Bonilla.

"The team wasn't going anywhere," Malone says now, "and we felt we needed to change something."

But in the days leading to the trade deadline, Orioles owner Peter Angelos stepped in and told Gillick he could not trade Wells, and could trade Bonilla if, in return, the Orioles got players who could help immediately.

The trade deadline came and went, and Bonilla and Wells remained with the Orioles. Many in the organization see this as a turning point, because in spite of all the early-season controversy, trade rumors, and questions, the players knew the team would remain intact.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro said: "Everybody knew then we'd be in this together, the rest of the way."

Mussina said: "We knew nobody was going to leave."

The next day, Aug. 1, the Orioles beat Minnesota, 4-2, completing their first three-game series sweep in nearly two months. They split four in Cleveland, took three straight in Milwaukee, and won one of three games from Chicago, finishing the 13-game trip 9-4.

"We were just coming off a poor homestand," third baseman B. J. Surhoff said. "It was like everybody just relaxed and said, 'The hell with it.' "

Mussina was in a streak in which he would win eight of nine decisions. Bonilla, who moved to right field for good after the acquisition of Eddie Murray on July 21, was starting to get hot. Players and coaches said Murray's presence helped keep everyone upbeat.

Gillick and Malone thought the team was playing well enough to reach the playoffs, and they continued to search for ways to address what they saw as major needs: pitching -- "a starter, preferably, but any pitching," Malone said -- and right-handed hitting.

They claimed several pitchers on waivers, including California's Shawn Boskie, and talked to other teams about "10 to 20 pitchers," Malone said. But teams pulled pitchers from waiver claims, and nothing developed.

Slowly, however, a corps of right-handed relief was coming together, maybe the most important development of the past two months. "For a while," Mussina said, "it seemed like all we had was left-handed relievers."

Mexican League refugee Archie Corbin arrived from Rochester and pitched effectively. Alan Mills began throwing harder in mid-August, and for five weeks, Johnson thought Mills was as good as any right-hander in the AL. Finally, the work of Malone and Gillick paid off when they picked up right-hander Terry Mathews Aug. 21 from the Florida Marlins. Armando Benitez came back from an elbow injury Aug. 26, and struck out Edgar Martinez, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey and Jay Buhner in his first week. The weak right-handed relief had become a strength.

Gillick and Malone found out in early August that Philadelphia would deal catcher Benito Santiago, third baseman Todd Zeile and Pete Incaviglia, but only if Jeffrey Hammonds was involved in the deal. The Orioles then focused more on Milwaukee infielder Kevin Seitzer, but on Aug. 26, the Seitzer deal fell apart.

Gillick turned to acquiring Zeile and Incaviglia, and on Aug. 27, Phillies GM Lee Thomas altered his demands, asking for minor-league pitcher Calvin Maduro. They made the deal Aug. 29, the day the Orioles had a horrible loss in Seattle when Mark Whiten hit a grand slam off Randy Myers.

But the Orioles came back to win two of the next three games against the Mariners -- "It felt good to be able to come back from that loss," Brady Anderson said -- with Incaviglia hitting a grand slam in his first game. On Sept. 8, the Orioles beat Detroit to move to 10 games over .500, something they hadn't done all season.

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