Prehistoric or historic? Dino-might: If the Orioles rule the baseball world, they would become the oldest team to win a World Series. The again, they could be facing extinction rather than distinction.

March 29, 1998|By JOE STRAUSS | JOE STRAUSS,SUN STAFF

Shattered by October's American League Championship Series loss, Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone have put together a one-shot team for the ages.

When manager Ray Miller scans his bench and a bottomless bullpen, he can count 53 All-Star Games and more than a regular season's worth of experience in LCS games alone. At third base crouches a living legend with 2,478 consecutive reasons his ticket should be punched for Cooperstown. His platoon of designated hitters carries 2,805 career RBIs. His rotation includes a third starter who has twice clinched World Series and a fifth starter who clutches a Cy Young Award.

Drive in 100 runs in eight straight strike-free seasons? If you're Joe Carter, that might buy you a start every other day.

Twisting the rubric of experience another way, the Orioles begin their season Tuesday with eight players 35 or older compared with only four younger than 30. Its graybeard configuration offers a franchise-record 14 pending free agents and has its youngest player, Armando Benitez, likely to close more games than any other pitcher on the team.

Hence the $70 million question: Is this the Age of the Oriole or merely the Jurassic Age at Oriole Park?

The reaction is predictable within a clubhouse that won a league-high 98 games last season and was, in Malone's estimation, "the best team in baseball bar none." Anyone who focuses solely on the calendar runs an acute risk of embarrassment.

"Age is only one factor. There is also experience, conditioning and a level of professionalism that might not be as obvious to someone looking for easy conclusions," says third baseman Cal Ripken, besides Miller and coaches Eddie Murray and Elrod Hendricks the sole leftovers from 1983, the club's last championship season. "There are a lot of parts to the equation. You play the season to see how they add up."

Ripken has long symbolized his organization. He did so especially last season. Hounded by a herniated disk in his lower back, he refused to stay out of the lineup, arguing along with manager Davey Johnson that he was still the club's best option at third base even at 70 percent. However, many drew a connection between a late-season fade and the toll exacted by a 162-game run featuring a wire-to-wire division title and relentless expectations.

"Did this team get tired last year? I think so," says Miller, attributing the fatigue as much to a lack of days off as age.

In its current form, this seasoned roster would represent the oldest by more than year to win a World Series, eclipsing the 1945 Detroit Tigers. Its combination of age and contract status almost guarantees that this team is on hold for a makeover.

A big opportunity

"I think it's accurate to say this organization is approaching a crossroads. There are decisions that at some point will have to be made," says Malone, currently working without a contract. "But that's not to minimize the opportunity this club has. I think everyone has focused on this year and what's at stake. We know what these players are capable of."

Blessed with a deeper bench, the Orioles should find more ways to score runs than last year, when they battled through 50 one-run games. Still, they carry the reputation of a pitching-and-defense club dependent on Mike Mussina and Erickson to provide innings and Jimmy Key (37 on April 22), Scott Kamieniecki and Doug Drabek to remain healthy. "If they pitch well, they'll do just fine," says Tom Kelly, the Twins' manager since he succeeded Miller in the Minnesota dugout in 1986. "Pitching's the name of the game, and they certainly have a talented staff of people. That's the bottom line. If they pitch consistently, you could throw people out there in wheelchairs and it wouldn't be a problem."

The Orioles came close enough last year to keep their club together. The tax on that luxury may soon become exorbitant.

Earlier this month, Gillick and Malone made their recommendations regarding free agents to majority owner Peter Angelos, who will handle all contract talks. A common thread within the recommendations was that the club offer no more than three-year contracts to pitcher Scott Erickson, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and left fielder B.J. Surhoff. (Second baseman Roberto Alomar may prove an exception.) Such a stance would virtually assure Palmeiro's defection, because he desires a five-year deal. However, Angelos proved during last December's negotiations with free agent Brady Anderson that he is willing to exceed front-office suggestions.

The Orioles open the season without a starting position player younger than 30. Seven starters will be 33 or older. If they win, they will be "experienced." If not, they are merely old. The conclusion already serves as a clubhouse irritant.

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