Uncool act is leaving Orioles cold

August 16, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

CLEVELAND -- After surviving the storm that was Armando Benitez yesterday at Jacobs Field, Orioles manager Ray Miller was asked if it was possible that the education of his young,

headstrong closer might never end.

"Could it be," Miller was asked, "that maybe you're going to have to live with Benitez like this?"

Exhausted from watching Benitez lose his cool and almost lose the game, too, Miller didn't flinch.

"Could be," he said.

And there it was: An admission from the manager that maybe, just maybe, Benitez was never going to learn to control his emotions. Not entirely, at least.

Who knows what that means for Benitez's long-term future with the Orioles? The patience of a team with a hands-on owner and a new general manager is hard to predict.

As for his short-term future with the Orioles, well, let's just say parental guidance is suggested after yesterday's frightful show.

The good news? There was no brawl this time. Benitez didn't plunk any hitters in the back and start a street fight when his frustration boiled over.

He also somehow wound up as the winning pitcher in the Orioles' 9-8 victory, a miraculous development given that he completely lost his cool after Miller asked him to record the last out in the bottom of the ninth inning.

But that was the only good news from Benitez yesterday. Otherwise, the news was troubling.

The Orioles had thought Benitez, 25, was beyond this stuff at last. They thought he finally had learned to control himself after suffering industry-wide scorn and embarrassment in the wake of his infamous beanball to Tino Martinez's back in May.

But then he walked three of five batters in the ninth yesterday, flipped his glove in the air in frustration when calls didn't go his way, walked in the tying run and came within several pitches of giving away the game.

He missed Brady Anderson's decisive and ultimately game-winning home run in the top of the 10th because he was in the clubhouse getting chewed out by Miller.

A low-key conversation?

"No," Miller said. "It was very one-sided."

Still stewing later, Miller reiterated several complaints about Benitez he'd made after the beaning.

"You have to be very cold-hearted to do that job. You have to almost be unemotional about it," Miller said. "I don't think Armando's figured that part of it out yet. When things go against him, he's ready to fight everybody and show everybody he's a tough guy. I still think there's some immaturity there."

It surfaces only occasionally now, but at the worst possible times.

Not that he was without excuses yesterday. Plate umpire Ted Barrett may have incorrectly called several pitches that would have helped him out of the jam. And, of course, every pitcher is entitled to off-days.

Randy Myers had them. Gregg Olson had them. Every closer has them.

"Nobody's perfect all the time," said Benitez, who has recorded 26 saves in 28 chances over the past two years.

"Overall, he's going to be reliable," said Rafael Palmeiro, one of several Orioles who trekked to the mound in the ninth to try to calm Benitez.

There's no doubt his numbers are fine, right in line with those of a quality closer. But it's this habit of coming undone that unnerves the Orioles.

Losing it with the game on the line isn't a trait you want in your closer.

You knew it was happening yesterday when Benitez retreated behind the mound after walking in the tying run and flipped his glove in the air, a gesture certain to infuriate the home plate umpire.

"That isn't good," Orioles catcher Lenny Webster said. "[The umpire] missed a few pitches, but [Benitez] isn't the first pitcher that happened to. [Flipping his glove] doesn't look good."

Benitez admitted the calls unnerved him, but he didn't try to deflect the blame.

"This was my fault," he said.

Give him credit for meeting with reporters, looking them in the eye and taking the fall after the game. He hasn't always done that after things went wrong. He had to learn to do it.

"I like this [in a way]," Benitez said, "because I will get better from it. Next time, I'll know what I have to do."

That's been the company line for years, of course: That Benitez ** was a work in progress, that his education was ongoing, that every misstep would help in the end.

Sounds good. The only problem is there's still no end in sight. Not after days such as yesterday.

Just when it seemed Benitez had turned a corner, he found himself on the same, old street.

NTC The Orioles survived this time. Benitez somehow got the out he )) needed to end the ninth, then pitched well in the 10th after Anderson gave him another chance.

It's a sign of how well the Orioles are going these days: They win even when Benitez loses it.

"It's a win in the end," Miller said.

But even as he said that, he couldn't hide his frustration; couldn't hide the fact that this win, as pleasing as it was, had come with a price.

He still can't trust his closer.

And who knows if he ever will?

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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