Orioles need new players, philosophy to be winners

September 29, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On that hopeful spring afternoon the Orioles commenced maybe the most deflating season in their whole 44-year history, outfielder Brady Anderson emerged from the Baltimore dugout an hour before game time, felt the balmy spring air caress him like velvet, saw the glorious Oriole Park stands ripe with adoring spectators and uttered a word unfit for the delicate sensibilities of this newspaper's readers.

"I can't play in this (bleep)," he declared.

Those of us standing near enough to hear Anderson's words laughed out loud. How lovely, a ballplayer with a sense of irony. Anderson, nobody's dummy, was wryly expressing the obvious: Life simply cannot be better than to be (reasonably) young, and (extraordinarily) wealthy, and a Baltimore Oriole at such a time as this.

Except for one slight problem: Baseball's post-season play has now begun, and the Orioles, once presumed participants, are nowhere to be seen. On Sunday, they finished the 1998 season 35 games behind the New York Yankees. They had a payroll of roughly $70 million, which averages not quite $3 million per player. And yet they laid down for long stretches and did not move.

They finished four games below break-even and, if you subtract a deceiving 10-and-2 start, they were 69-and-81 over the final 150 games. Brady Anderson, who once hit 50 homers, this time hit 18 on a .236 average. Cal Ripken, once considered a power hitter, drove in only 61 runs with 14 homers. Chris Hoiles, attempting to throw out base stealers, could no longer reach second without a relay man.

The one who pays the bills for this, owner Peter Angelos, has been rationalizing all over the place, because what else can he do? It's his team, his manager, and his front office. At least, what's left of it.

Angelos points defensively to the recent past: Look, he says, at the previous two seasons, when the club won big and reached the playoffs. Understand, he implies, that no one can win every year.

But $70 million of his money went into this team, with the assumption that a dollar still counts for something. With this team, it did not. It leaves Angelos looking like a rube who's had his pocket picked. Competing general managers who truly know the game welcome Angelos' intrusions every time he rules on Orioles player decisions.

The ballclub is filled with those considered glorious in the past tense. They lead the league in marquee names no longer capable of grand production. Ripken, Anderson and Hoiles, for example, are enormously popular, and help fill Oriole Park every night. In a time when the average major leaguer changes teams every 3.3 years, and only 13 percent play for the same team they did four years ago, these guys give hometown fans a sense of stability. But there's a difference between box office value and playing ability, and Angelos has to make that distinction - or at least let his front office make it.

It's a distinction that makes the case of Rafael Palmeiro so poignant. Approaching his mid-30s, he wants a five-year contract near the neighborhood of $10 million. Per year. But the Orioles have been burned on such contracts for players in their 30s. So they may lose their most elegant and productive hitter.

And maybe their best all-around player, Roberto Alomar. For all his ability - and Alomar's magic when the spirit moves him - the Orioles feel he plays hard only on occasion.

"In the old days," one former front office official was saying recently, "if a guy dogged it, he'd hear about it. He'd get a knock on his hotel room door that night, and a guy like Frank Robinson would clean up the room with him. But, today, the guy who ought to be the leader of the team doesn't even stay in the same hotel."

The reference is to Ripken, who is many grand things but wishes to lead no one. The man hired specifically to lead is manager Ray Miller. Managing a baseball team is not exactly rocket science. The subtleties involve handling 25 young, headstrong, egotistical millionaires who are free to leave town if they feel unappreciated or underpaid, at whatever price.

Miller hasn't figured out a way to do this. Like other Oriole managers, he first made the mistake of thinking grown-up professionals knew how to motivate themselves. Then he vented against pathetic failures like the now-departed reliever Terry Mathews. Then he started venting in more general ways when it was far too late.

On that balmy opening day when Brady Anderson emerged from the Baltimore dugout and pronounced, in his wry way, that the world was grand, the Orioles thought they understood two things: They had a talented ballclub ready to battle the New York Yankees, and they had a small window of opportunity, because so many of their key players were aging.

The window of opportunity has now closed. This team needs not only new ballplayers, but a new philosophy of building a winner.

Pub Date: 9/29/98

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