Rolling seas don't mean ship will sink

October 31, 1997|By John Eisenberg

Leaks are springing all over the bow of the Orioles' ship, with the futures of Davey Johnson, Pat Gillick, Brady Anderson and Randy Myers in limbo.

But does that mean the ship is going to sink?

Hardly.

Regardless of what happens between now and the first pitch of spring training in February, you can be sure the Orioles will still field one of the American League's best teams in 1998.

Peter Angelos will stuff the leaks with wads of cash -- the cash that comes from sellouts at Camden Yards and goes to top-dollar free agents.

That's not to say the Orioles will be potent enough to win 98 games again, because they won't if they lose Johnson, Anderson, Myers or any combination of the three.

And it's certainly not to say that these nonstop personnel flutterings are good for business, because they're not; they create an air of conflict and uncertainty that damages the on-field product.

Chasing off the winningest active manager in the major leagues is counterproductive, to say the least.

Angelos should be doing his best to keep intact a '97 club that was clearly the AL's best, regardless of what happened against the Indians in the American League Championship Series.

Instead, he's going to preside over yet another shake-up, or so it seems.

He's shaking up a club that didn't need shaking, not that anyone can tell him.

He would argue that he isn't responsible for the shaking, that he can't help it if people want to leave -- but they're leaving because his heavy-handed ownership has turned the Orioles into the Bronx Zoo of the '90s.

But again, that doesn't mean the ship is going to sink.

As much as the Orioles are hurt by the constant state of flux Angelos authors, they're helped by the high payroll he permits his front office to dispense.

More than five dozen players have filed for free agency since the end of the World Series, including such stars as Andres Galarraga, Willie Blair and Rod Beck, and you can be sure the Orioles will sign a couple, as they always do.

They might not have enviable continuity or an enviable pot of prospects simmering in their farm system, but they do have an enviable revenue stream thanks to Camden Yards.

They can always buy a contender, in other words.

And they're always going to, it appears, as long as Angelos is in charge.

His money bought the guts of the current team over the past few years with the signings of Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, Mike Bordick, B.J. Surhoff, Randy Myers, Jimmy Key and Eric Davis -- all of whom already are set to return in '98, with the exception of Myers.

It isn't the classic way to build a contender -- in fact, it's borderline ugly -- but it's effective, especially since only a handful of other clubs can afford so much free-agent talent.

The wave of new, revenue-enhancing ballparks has broken the majors into haves and have-nots, and the Orioles are haves and then some.

They didn't make the playoffs until they brought in a puzzle-master such as Gillick to spend the money wisely -- that's why his loss would be the greatest of all -- but they'll always have the money, that's for sure.

Losing the popular Anderson would be a mistake, but they would try to offset that subtraction with the addition of another big name.

Losing Myers would cause serious damage to the bullpen, but good money would be spent on repairs.

Losing Johnson, which seems inevitable now, is one leak you can't necessarily plug with money -- although Angelos will try to lure Felipe Alou or another big-name manager as a replacement.

Money talks in baseball, as it does in every other profession.

And as ridiculous as the Orioles have become in some ways, with so much dirty laundry always being aired in public, they'll always have enough money to field an interesting team, at the very least.

It's a classic trade-off, an example of how few things in life are totally perfect or imperfect.

With the bad (heavy-handed ownership) comes the good (high payroll, good players).

With the ability to lure a Gillick comes the ability to undermine him enough to make him debate the merits of staying.

Does the trade-off benefit the Orioles? Well, they have had a .552 winning percentage with two playoff appearances in the four years of the Angelos era, as opposed to a .490 percentage and no playoff appearances in the four years before the Angelos era. That's a marked improvement.

Yet there have been no AL pennants and World Series trips, so let's not get carried away.

It hasn't helped that Angelos will be working on his fourth manager if he finds a way to unload Johnson.

And he'll be working on his third general manager no later than this time next year, when Gillick's contract expires.

When a team is constantly starting over in such a fashion, it becomes harder to give a season the right finish; the team needs to be lucky more than good, as the Indians were this year.

Maybe Angelos will figure that out one of these years.

Constant change is a bad idea in baseball.

Meanwhile, the Orioles' ship will continue to navigate the high and low seas that have become familiar in the Angelos era, with managers leaving and free agents coming.

It's enough to keep the ship from sinking.

But it isn't the wisest way to operate a franchise.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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