Days of future aren't past for good, old O's

March 29, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Eric Davis was celebrating an Orioles spring training victory the other day when a teammate complimented him for going first to third on a single.

"You should have seen me 10 years ago," Davis said, grinning. "I would have scored on that ball."

You should have seen me 10 years ago.

It could be the team motto.

Thirteen Ori-olds -- more than half -- played in the majors in 1988.

The New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves each have six such players. Most other clubs have one or two. Two clubs have none.

You should have have seen me 10 years ago.

The heck with that.

You should see the Orioles right now.

Lifting their weights. Drinking their protein shakes. Outworking younger teammates.

Yes, the Orioles feature more 1991 All-Stars than '97 All-Stars. Yes, 21 of their 25 players are thirty-something or forty-something. Yes, they might wind up Grumpy Old Men before this season is over.

But enough searching for the fountain of the youth.

It's right here in the Inner Harbor.

Does Brady Anderson look 34? Does Cal Ripken look 37? Does Jesse Orosco look 40?

Nope, and they don't play like they're middle-aged, either.

If the Orioles fail to win the World Series, it won't be because they're too old. It will be because their pitching falters, their hitting disappears or some other infuriating baseball reason.

There might be more gray hair in their clubhouse than in your average bingo hall, but the place isn't exactly a geriatric ward.

Pump some iron. Down a creatine cocktail. Party with the O's.

Youth is overrated.

Professional athletes are in better condition than they were even five years ago. From Paul Molitor to John Elway to Michael Jordan, they're sustaining high levels of performance longer than ever before.

Yes, the Orioles need to be monitored carefully. But if they reach their third straight postseason -- and they should -- they will shatter old myths about aging athletes, and raise new possibilities entering the 21st century.

You should see 'em now, all buffed and ready to go.

Orioles trainer Richie Bancells said the team's young minor-leaguers found it difficult to keep pace with the fitness-conscious veterans this spring.

Harold Baines, 39, frequently was the first player to arrive in the clubhouse for morning workouts. Ripken, Anderson and others stayed long after the baseball sessions were over.

"We had times early on this spring when 10 or 12 of the veterans would be back in the weight room an hour after the game, while some of those 18- to 20-year-old kids were showered and out the door," strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop said.

"I don't think it has anything to do with age. It has to do with ## professionalism. And the younger kids have to learn that."

Which shows, yet again, how absurd it is for most of the Orioles' minor-leaguers to train on the other side of the state in Sarasota. The club's lack of a permanent training facility prevents them from seeing how the major-leaguers prepare.

It all starts with Ripken. One of the hidden benefits of his consecutive-games streak is the way his work ethic influences the team. The Orioles work hard, play hard, play hurt. Even as he turns grayer, Ripken sets the tone.

Still, not even Ripken can avoid the steady march of time. He struggled with back problems last season. His power numbers diminished. In many ways, his troubles underscored the risks facing this team.

Ripken isn't the only Oriole who experienced a statistical decline in 1997 -- Anderson, Baines, Rafael Palmeiro, Joe Carter and Mike Bordick suffered the same fate.

Among the healthy regulars, only B. J. Surhoff matched or improved his production from the previous season. The pitching staff fared better, but Jimmy Key and Terry Mathews showed marked decline in the second half.

So, it stands to reason that this team could be on the verge of a sudden collapse rather than one final World Series run. But the Orioles are deeper than they were last season, and the addition of two expansion teams will help their cause.

General manager Pat Gillick argues that the diluted talent will leave most clubs with only one or two overpowering pitchers. Thus, even if some of the Orioles' hitters lose bat speed, they can still handle most fastballs.

As for injuries, veterans aren't necessarily more susceptible -- Jeffrey Hammonds, one of the Orioles' youngest players at 27, is one of their most brittle. Recovery time also might be less of an issue than it appears.

True, a 25-year-old rebounds from a pulled leg muscle more quickly than a 35-year-old. But again, these are not ordinary 35-year-olds.

"I don't think there's any question that older athletes may take longer to recover -- may," Bishop said. "It all goes back to whether the athlete is in shape. If he is, he can recover faster. That's a very minor thing."

Put it this way -- your average GM would rather have a team of proven veterans than a team of unproven youngsters. Older doesn't always mean better, but it usually means wiser. Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.

The Boys of Summer might be Sunshine Boys, but they're raging against the twilights of their careers, and maybe changing perceptions about older athletes forever.

You should have seen me 10 years ago.

Wrong.

You should see the Orioles right now.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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