What's next no routine fly for Orioles

May 22, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- They're losing, they're lifeless and they're so far down in the AL East standings now that the front office should trade for a geologist, not a pitcher. But we know that.

What we don't know is this: What's going to happen when this disastrous losing streak ends and the Orioles start playing better?

Because they will start playing better, as hard as that is to envision right now.

It's one of the first lessons of Baseball 101: You're never as bad as you look at your worst, nor as good as you look at your best.

The Orioles clearly are experiencing their worst right now, having lost eight in a row after the Yankees' 3-1 victory last night. But what comes next?

Will they recover and play well enough to climb back into the playoff picture and make September interesting after all?

Or will they take the easy way out and settle for leveling off from the horror of the past 10 days and muddling through the rest of the season in their current role as baseball's most expensive bust?

In other words, just how much pride do they have?

We're about to find out.

"There's an awful lot [of pride] being swallowed right now," manager Ray Miller said last night.

Whether the Orioles have swallowed too much becomes the issue now.

Their season could be over, as hard as that is to believe in late May.

But their season doesn't have to be over.

"We're only a quarter of the way through, more or less," Cal Ripken said. "You can't get too overly excited or too overly concerned about anything going on when you still have 100-something games left.

"When you're going through [a losing streak] like this, it all seems so bad. But the last three-fourths of the season will determine what kind of season we have. Not the first quarter."

Yes, the events of the first quarter almost surely have cost the Orioles a shot at defending their AL East title. They're 14 games behind the Yankees and now an astonishing 17 back in the loss column. Only a foolish optimist would give them any shot at catching the Yankees.

"No one has a chance if the Yankees keep playing this well," Ripken said.

But the Yankees won't keep playing this well. They're having one of those magical seasons -- was there any doubt they'd rally in the eighth inning last night? -- but they're on a pace to win 125 games, which is science fiction.

The Red Sox won't keep playing this well, either; sorry, but they aren't a .630 team, not even close.

The Orioles? They won't keep playing this badly, you can be sure. Really. Truly. Honestly.

They have too much talent, old as it might be, to keep bumbling along in last place, getting swept all over the place.

Get Mike Mussina back, get a few hitters rolling, get Armando Benitez's head cleared, get a little momentum going -- it can happen and probably will, given baseball's back-and-forth nature.

"We have a quality club, that's the bottom line," Ripken said. "Obviously, we haven't played up to expectations yet. But I have no doubt that we'll play well and win."

You hear a lot of such talk in the clubhouse, which is no surprise. Back home, the fans have graduated from the panic stage to gallows humor. But not the players and coaches.

"I'm still the eternal optimist," Miller said. "I see the glass half-full. And I'm looking for a pitcher to fill the rest up."

A pitcher? How about three pitchers? Ha!

DTC But seriously, do the Orioles have the pride and ability to make a comeback as strong as this collapse?

A high-priced team of pending free agents has the potential to blow up, no question. Not that the players don't want to win. They do. But it's easier to accept losing if you aren't in for the long haul. That's just human nature.

Miller continued to defend the players' effort last night, but he did so with a backhanded compliment.

"For the most part, guys are trying like hell," he said.

For the most part?

When are they not "trying like hell"?

Keep that comment in the back of your mind, but also remember that it's just not fair to judge the players' effort on what has gone on lately. When you're a slow team to begin with and also not hitting, you're always going to look vaguely nonchalant, whether or you are or not. Check back in late July for a better assessment.

Meanwhile, let's see if this collection of established, expensive stars has the guts to dig out of an embarrassing situation.

"It's a long, long season," Ripken said. "Everyone is watching the standings, but the standings don't mean anything until September."

Do his teammates have the same attitude?

"I would hope so," he said. "That's the benefit of experience. Sometimes too much attention is paid to the small picture, and you forget there's a big picture."

Right now, all pictures big and small are dark for the Orioles, who simply can't look any worse.

Let's see if they have the pride to come back for real and turn that darkness to light.

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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