This time, O's show some class

May 21, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- Peter Angelos apologized to fellow owner George Steinbrenner. Ray Miller apologized to fellow manager Joe Torre. The operative word that Orioles officials kept using was "embarrassed."

It not only was the proper response for an organization that once prided itself on "The Oriole Way," but also a major improvement over the way the club reacted to the Roberto Alomar spitting incident two years ago.

Maybe the Orioles learned their lesson. Maybe they're exasperated with Armando Benitez. Maybe they don't value an erratic reliever as much as an All-Star second baseman.

Whatever, they said all the right things yesterday, Miller in particular. The manager said that "someone could have gotten killed" when Benitez threw at Tino Martinez on Tuesday night, and made it clear that he didn't like it.

"The intent is his to live with," Miller said. "We all represent the Baltimore Orioles. Anything that happens, we have to stand up and be judged for it. The only thing we can do is issue an apology and go back to playing baseball and hope this spurs us."

Miller clearly distanced himself from Benitez, calling the 25-year-old Dominican "a young, immature guy" and saying he "fully supported" the decision by American League president Gene Budig to suspend him for eight games.

General manager Pat Gillick expressed sympathy for Benitez, citing the cultural obstacles that Latin American players face in North America. Assistant GM Kevin Malone spoke of the need for the Orioles to help Benitez become a better pitcher and person.

But that was it.

No one excused Benitez for drilling Martinez after allowing a decisive three-run homer by Bernie Williams. No one

suggested that he was provoked. No one tried to defend the indefensible, which was the club's mistake with Alomar.

"We recognized that what happened was unfortunate," Malone said. "We feel like we're trying to make it right. We're trying to accept the responsibility for inciting it.

"We don't condone some of the things their guys did, but we know we kind of instigated it. We apologized for that. We don't think what happened was good for baseball. We're embarrassed not just for the organization, but for all of baseball."

If only the Orioles had shown the same class after Alomar spit on umpire John Hirschbeck in Toronto at the end of the '96 season. It was a different player, a different situation, a different season. But it warranted a similar reaction.

Instead, the club waffled, blaming Hirschbeck for cursing Alomar, delaying the player's apology, then issuing it in a scripted news release. The circumstances were more mitigating. But spitting on an umpire is certainly no less offensive than throwing at an opposing hitter.

When club officials talk about "The Oriole Way," they're talking about the proper way to play the game, a system of fundamentals devised by Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Sr. But in a larger sense, they're also talking about a certain dignity that once defined this organization. A dignity that was lacking two years ago, and lacking Tuesday night.

Weaver hated when his pitchers threw at opposing hitters. Ken Singleton, the former Oriole turned Yankees broadcaster, recalled the manager's response in 1980 when pitcher Paul Hartzell said he was "going to get" Milwaukee's Gorman Thomas.

"Earl heard it, and told 'Rabbit' [Miller] to tell him, 'We don't throw at people here. If someone throws at Eddie Murray, the whole team is in trouble,' " Singleton said.

Hartzell was later waived.

"Earl always felt our talent was better than the opposition's," bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said. "He couldn't afford to get one of his big guys hurt with some senseless act. He always felt we had more to lose."

The Orioles might be underachieving thus far, but with a $69 million payroll, they're largely in the same position today. What if Alomar or Rafael Palmeiro had been injured Tuesday? How much worse would Benitez have looked then?

As Miller put it, "The action of, 'I'll hurt you if I can't beat you,' totally misrepresents the Baltimore Orioles' tradition of good play and sportsmanship. When you send that message, that's a very, very poor thing in sports."

The Orioles haven't always taken the high road. Five years ago, several Seattle players charged that Mike Mussina said he was "ordered" to throw at Bill Haselman. Just 18 days ago, Scott Erickson retaliated for Roberto Alomar's getting hit by drilling Minnesota's Brent Gates, and it helped cost the Orioles a game.

Even then, however, Erickson only hit Gates in the leg. In the Yankees' opinion, Benitez's pitch appeared directed at Martinez's head. Steinbrenner went so far as to say, "If it had been six inches higher, it might have killed Tino."

So, why did Benitez snap? He was 17 when he signed with the Orioles. This is his eighth year in the organization. Miller said he thought the reliever had "come miles" since hitting Martinez, then with Seattle, in a similar incident in '95.

"I made a mistake myself not going out and talking to him," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "I know Armando as well as anyone. I wanted to go out there and calm him down. But I felt he wasn't going to do anything like that."

No one did, but it happened, and this time, the Orioles accepted responsibility. Their bullpen is a mess. Their season is in shambles.

Their future is uncertain. But at least they're correcting past mistakes. At least they stand for something again.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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