Diplomatic O's should flag down Cuba's best

May 03, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Now that the Cubans are in town, the Orioles can stop pretending they're diplomats, stop making nice to dictators, stop trying to save the world.

They should roll out the red carpet from one dugout to the other. Stack wads of cash on their bench like so much capitalist catnip. Bring a whole new meaning to the concept of crossing home plate.

Tonight marks a first, all right -- the first time the Orioles have beaten other major-league clubs to Latin American talent. They can't be trusted with their lead, of course. But short of naming agent Joe Cubas team president -- we don't think so -- this is their big chance.

As always, mass demonstration inside Cuba Yards will be strictly prohibited, except if cell-phone carriers raise their rates. But if the crowd starts chanting "De-fect! De-fect!" who will know if they're encouraging the Cubans to switch uniforms, or Albert Belle to catch a fly ball?

Hey, anything goes when you're 7-17 with an $84.5 million payroll. And seriously, tonight's game against a Cuban all-star team will be remembered as far more than a meaningless exhibition if it eventually gives the Orioles an edge in signing Cuban talent.

For too long, the Orioles have lagged behind other teams in scouting the Caribbean. For too long, they've wasted millions on major-league free agents while failing to direct their vast resources toward the international market.

Owner Peter Angelos cited a "people-to-people exchange" as the primary motivation for the Cuba series. Yet, he portrayed quite a different agenda when he attempted to schedule the games two years ago.

"We have influence in Venezuela and Aruba. Cuba seemed to us a logical place to establish a beachhead and recruit players for the Orioles," Angelos told The Sun's Peter Schmuck in April 1997. "That was our intention, certainly not a diplomatic mission."

That still should be their intention, no matter how much lip service they paid to peace, love and understanding in order to get the games approved by Major League Baseball and the U.S. government.

No one knows when the Castro regime will topple. No one knows when the Cuban players will become available. No one knows if the Orioles will gain an actual competitive advantage by playing these games.

But suffice it to say, they need all the help they can get.

The Orioles' player develop- ment frustrations the past 15 years haven't been confined to Latin America. When you haven't developed an impact position player since Cal Ripken, you've failed dismally on all fronts.

It's not that the Orioles are invisible in the Caribbean. It's just that their efforts pale in comparison to those of many of their rivals -- a critical point, considering that they can sign foreign-born players as free agents, but must select those from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico in the amateur draft.

The Orioles have been successful in signing cheap foreign labor to fill their minor-league rosters -- nearly half their farm-system players are from the Caribbean. But they've yet to develop a quality major-leaguer from their international program, much less a star.

Only four players on their current 25-man roster (Juan Guzman, Sidney Ponson, Ricky Bones and Willis Otanez) were born outside the United States. And only one of those (Ponson) was an original farm system product.

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said the Orioles' lack of a baseball academy in the Dominican has left scout Carlos Bernhardt to sign "the dregs" from the country where the team considers itself strongest. The exceptions were players that Bernhardt befriended at young ages, such as pitcher Armando Benitez and infielder Manny Alexander.

Bernhardt, a major-league coach last season, is now the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting. General manager Frank Wren said the team is trying to acquire land to build a permanent training site in the Dominican. It currently rents facilities in the Dominican and Venezuela.

"We're getting our share of players. But you have more control over their development when you have a weight room, dining halls, classroom -- a year-round training facility," Wren said. "We do it as well as we can, but it's not the same."

Wren worked previously for the Florida Marlins, a team that features an 11-person Latin American Operations Department. The Orioles' media guide lists six international scouts, including Bernhardt. The Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers each list 16; the New York Yankees, 13; the small-market Oakland Athletics, seven.

Still, the Orioles have made progress under Angelos. Specifically, they've grown more sensitive to Latin concerns, according to Mike Powers, the agent for Benitez, Alexander and Cesar Devarez, three Dominicans traded by the club in recent years.

The losses of Benitez, Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar last winter seemed more coincidence than a deliberate purge. In fact, Angelos backed Alomar after the second baseman spat on umpire John Hirschbeck in 1996, and drew intense criticism for defending him so vehemently.

The question now is whether tonight's exhibition is just for show, or a genuine attempt by the Orioles to become more of an international player.

Signing Belle for $65 million isn't the only way to compete with the hated Yankees. It might not even be the best way.

The Yankees signed Bernie Williams out of Puerto Rico and Mariano Rivera and Ramiro Mendoza out of Panama. More recently, they acquired and signed Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu, then won the bidding for Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez and Dominican shortstop Alfonso Soriano.

"We want to have our hand in everything. You've got to access every talent source there is," Wren said. "I don't look at the color of skin or the language people speak when I put together a club. I'm looking for good players who can fill the needs I have."

Roll out the red carpet, then.

There will be plenty of good players in the visiting dugout tonight.

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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