Strangely, winning has losing side

June 15, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Five wins in a row. A stunning sweep of the Braves last weekend. An escape from the American League East cellar.

Success. Uh-oh.

It's just what the Orioles need, of course, after embarrassing themselves in the first two months of the season.

But it's also what they really don't need at this point in 1999, after already establishing that their chances of accomplishing anything are slim.

Sure, winning makes for livelier nights at Camden Yards, a more interesting season and generally lower local blood pressure -- good things, all.

But enough winning will persuade owner Peter G. Angelos not to break up the team and sell off valuable parts for prospects -- a hard turn the club still needs to take for the first time since Angelos took over in the early '90s.

Yes, the Orioles finally are playing better -- not that they could have played worse -- but with a 26-36 record after last night's win at Camden Yards, they're still an $84 million bust until proven otherwise.

Creaking and flawed, they're the classic example of a team that should retool for the future at the trading deadline, 22-1 blowouts notwithstanding.

They're finally building a future thanks to several quality drafts and seven first-rounders this year, and exchanging veterans for more young players would enhance the process.

Given the Orioles' place in the AL order -- far beneath the Indians and Yankees -- what's to lose?

But if Angelos chose not to break up last year's disappointing team, which was 26 1/2 games out of first place at the All-Star break, he's obviously looking for any reason to keep this year's team together, too.

A few wins in a row and a telescopic view of the AL wild-card race probably will do.

The Orioles are already there, sitting "just" nine games behind the wild-card leaders, the Red Sox, whose pitching staff is suddenly and conveniently falling apart, giving hope to all, even to those who might not deserve it.

With the Yankees not living up to last year's standard and the Red Sox looking more vulnerable, AL wild-card dreams are cheap this year. If the Orioles can have them, after all their miseries, who can't?

Such thoughts are fine as long as the Atlanta triumph kick-starts a long winning streak and a credible run at a playoff berth. Last night's 7-1 defeat of the Royals featured another positive development, Scott Erickson's second straight strong start. Somewhat overdue.

At the very least, the Orioles probably won't bottom-feed if their starting pitching continues to hold.

But they're still a long way from credibility, much less mediocrity, after crash-landing at 15 games under .500 last week. And they can't change that in just five days.

The next six weeks will tell all, basically. Either the deficiencies the Orioles have exhibited all season suddenly will cease to exist, or Atlanta really was the start of something.

The latter involves the bullpen's making a new habit of holding leads, so hold all bets.

As Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said on Sunday night's ESPN telecast from Atlanta, in the end, the Orioles probably have dug a hole too deep.

If that proves true, a spate of trading deadline deals would be all but mandated. How else can a club squeeze something positive out of a lost season?

The fans wouldn't mind, that's for sure. Angelos' policy of keeping his clubs intact is noble, but he underestimates his fans' patience and intelligence. They'd not only support a turn to youth after the high-priced disappointments of the past two years, but they'd also welcome the change.

These are fans so loyal to the uniform that they're even willing to cheer for Albert Belle. That's a lot harder than embracing a building mode.

Yes, it could be argued that there's little to gain from a sell-off with so many Orioles tied to long-term contracts and, in some cases, no-trade clauses.

Arthur Rhodes and Juan Guzman are the most obvious candidates for deals. Harold Baines, Jeff Conine and Lenny Webster, too. Erickson? Possibly. Brady Anderson, one of those with a no-trade clause, has said he would listen. The Dodgers might want him. And they would pay.

The Orioles have entertained such possibilities in each of the past four seasons except for 1997, and always elected to keep the team together. If they'd made even just a few of the deals, sacrificing the present for the future, they'd be in much better shape today.

Rookie general manager Frank Wren is a player-development proponent who would probably favor making the deals, but he has apparently fallen out of favor with Angelos, so who knows what might happen?

In any case, it won't matter if the Orioles keep rolling. If the Red Sox are in sight, even remotely in sight, the Orioles probably will stand pat. No matter the odds of staging a comeback. No matter the long-range consequences. That's just what happens around here. A little success is fine, but it can be a dangerous thing.

Pub Date: 6/15/99

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