Orioles await future shock Disastrous season, free-agent questions guarantee changes

September 29, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

One by one the Orioles entered their clubhouse yesterday to toss, tape and crate the remnants of a season that died long ago but wasn't buried until Sunday. Roberto Alomar's name had been ripped from his locker. Ray Miller gathered his cigars. Circulating throughout the organization is an undercurrent of change.

"I think what this year showed is everybody has to get on the same page. I know that's my goal," Miller said last weekend.

Miller and chief operating officer Joe Foss have met repeatedly in recent weeks while a search continues for a successor to general manager Pat Gillick. The process will likely conclude within the next three weeks. Meanwhile, a traumatized clubhouse wonders when the direction will become clear.

"This is tougher than last year," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, one of nine potential free agents. "Last year it was tough because I thought we were going to win it all and we lost. But I knew most of our team was going to be back and we would have a shot at winning it all. This year's different. I really can't look forward to next year because I don't know where I'll be."

Palmeiro has plenty of company. B. J. Surhoff, Eric Davis, Alan Mills, Juan Guzman and Alomar are among the possible defections.

Davis is among those who doesn't believe majority owner Peter Angelos will allow a mass exodus.

"If everybody leaves, what do we have then? Another Florida. Do you think Peter is going to do that? No way," Davis said. "This team will be competitive and probably challenge for the World Series again. As long as he's owner, that's going to happen."

Said Palmeiro: "Wherever I end up, whether it's here or not, it will be on a talented team. But I'd just rather it be this one. This is going to be a talented team again."

Miller said yesterday any decisions about his coaching staff will be made within the next week. If there are changes, hitting coach Rick Down may be replaced by bench coach Eddie Murray. Mike Flanagan, who reluctantly moved out of the broadcast booth this season, may wonder about a return.

The uncertainty is a byproduct of a season that went sour before June, revived after the All-Star break, then collapsed following a contentious clubhouse meeting in August. Losing streaks of eight, nine and 10 games peppered the schedule.

While injuries provided an easy starting point toward an explanation -- the Orioles used the disabled list 17 times -- players disputed them serving as a tell-all.

"That's way too simplistic," Surhoff said. "In the first half we just played bad. We dug ourselves a huge hole. Sure, injuries hurt. But it's a cop-out to blame everything on that."

An Aug. 26 meeting in Chicago in which Miller and Alomar nearly came to blows was followed last week in Toronto by a clubhouse shoving match between two players. Punches were not exchanged but retaliation promised. Complaints about double standards for certain players resurfaced throughout the season, most vocally during Alomar's profanity-laced outburst in August. Coincidence or not, the Orioles were 10-21 after the Chicago meeting.

"Even though we went through a couple long losing streaks, we were able to come back and put together winning streaks. But that last one through Chicago, we were never able to recuperate from that one," Palmeiro said.

Besides citing injuries, the club now recognizes the need to re-energize a clubhouse that showed signs of stagnation. Asked Sunday how many players may start next season in the same positions, Miller paused and said, "I'd better not answer that one."

An organizational blueprint exists for acquiring a center fielder and moving Brady Anderson to left field. Finding an "upgrade" at catcher is a priority and replacing the virtual certain loss of Alomar looms as a need. Firming a decimated starting rotation, however, remains the highest priority.

"It was more than just guys getting hurt," said Palmeiro, the club's offensive leader with a career-high 43 home runs and 121 RBIs. "It started with that and then we were never able to get in a groove. Mike [Mussina] was on the DL and I think it took a lot out of our team to see him get hit in the face [by a line drive May 14]. Then Jimmy [Key] went down and [Scott] Kamieniecki went down. Our starters were hurting and our bullpen was used a lot. Everything just snowballed."

Mussina, Key and Kamieniecki made a combined 97 starts covering 616 1/3 innings in 1997. This season the three landed on the disabled list six times and put together only 51 starts and 340 1/3 innings. Not surprisingly, the Orioles allowed 119 more earned runs this season than last.

Destroyed by paper-thin depth, the Orioles have committed their off-season to acquiring solid starting pitching. Free agents Kevin Brown and Al Leiter remain possibilities. The Orioles prefer to add two starting pitchers, designating Sidney Ponson as fifth starter.

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