Chalk up as another loss any reason to keep O's intact

September 02, 1998|By John Eisenberg

Say this much for the Orioles: When they decide to go under, they don't fool around.

It doesn't matter that they're in the middle of a forgiving stretch of games against the White Sox and Royals, a pair of faceless, losing teams going nowhere.

When the Orioles decide there's nothing left to play for, they don't concern themselves with trifling matters such as easy scheduling. They just go, baby.

Glub, glub, goodbye.

It isn't pretty, no. Losing nine games in a row against vastly inferior teams is about as ugly as it gets, in fact.

But look at the positives. The season is over. The results are in. The playoffs are out. You don't have to lose any more sleep contemplating the possibilities.

As well, there's this inescapable lesson: The front office can't possibly bring this team back for another shot in 1999. Not now.

Not after a third long losing streak in five months.

Not with a lame, fourth-place finish in the offing.

There was reason to contemplate keeping the team intact after it won 31 of 41 games after the All-Star break, seemingly indicating that a pathetic first half was a fluke.

But it's clear now that the first half was no fluke. Something is fundamentally wrong with this team. Something you can't quantify with numbers.

Something deep in the foundation, deeply important and very wrong.

It has nothing to do with injuries, bad pitching, bad luck or any of the company-line excuses you have heard and everything to do with the lack of fighting instinct, a pervading sense of self-satisfaction and the general absence of a keen mental edge.

It's not that the players aren't trying. They're pros. They're trying just as hard as anyone else in the major leagues.

But a team that keeps piling up long losing streaks is a team wallowing in failure instead of fighting it.

And a team that's 13 games under .500 against five of the majors' worst teams (Expos, Marlins, Devil Rays, Royals and White Sox) needs a hard slap to the face.

And an overhaul.

There's no way this team should return intact in '99.

This way didn't work.

A number of veterans are already under contract for next season, of course, including the top three starting pitchers, the left side of the infield, two catchers, the center fielder and some of the bench. So only so much change is possible. And that's fine. Many of the players under contract can help.

But major changes of some kind are all but mandated at this point, and it's not too late.

Yes, the remaining list of pending free agents includes Eric nTC Davis, Harold Baines, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B. J. Surhoff -- the team's top five hitters in terms of average going into last night. You can make a strong case for bringing each of them back.

But if they all came back, the Orioles would be even older than they were this year. And if they all came back, the Orioles would return the entire core of a team that, in the end, is going to go down as baseball's biggest bust.

That can't happen. That should never happen.

This team needs to get younger, faster and hungrier, not older.

So, what to do? Make some hard decisions, that's what.

Think hard about whether Alomar is worth another big contract, considering that he hasn't played quite as well in the past two seasons as he did in 1996.

Think hard about whether Palmeiro deserves all the money he's asking for, considering that the team is headed for a fourth-place finish despite his strong season.

Think hard about whether Davis belongs in the mix, as well as he has played, if he can't hold up for a whole season, and whether Baines belongs in the mix, as well as he has played, after turning 40 next March.

Surhoff? He deserves to come back because he brings the fighting instinct that's lacking, the "every at-bat is a war" attitude. The Orioles need more of that, not less.

But they also need a wave of new blood, not more of the same, old blood.

This isn't the day to call for a specific agenda of change. It's too early. No one knows what will happen, how the negotiations with various agents will proceed and what alternatives might appear in the free-agent pool.

Shoot, the Orioles don't even know who'll design their '99 team yet, with their general manager's job still in limbo.

But the point is this: There's nothing to lose now.

After another long losing streak and a sudden departure from the playoff picture, there's no reason to pursue stability and limit change.

The '98 Orioles aren't worth preserving.

Pub Date: 9/02/98

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