Club, fans in Rochester feeling sting of minor irritation with O's

Inside the Orioles

Relationship with affiliate chills

Red Wings rebuff attempt at 3-year deal

July 04, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Beyond the booing of designated anti-hero Albert Belle and the protracted cheering of third baseman Cal Ripken in what was likely his last tour through town, Rochester hugged the Orioles on Monday. It was something less than a full embrace.

The Orioles' season has become one of blatant disappointment. However, its relationship with the Red Wings, a 39-year Triple-A affiliate, underscores the loosening ties within a farm system once considered more family and represents a subtler issue that played out in a private box last Monday. While the Orioles sprinted through eight innings of a 1-1 exhibition, general manager Frank Wren attempted to negotiate a three-year extension, only to be rebuffed by Red Wings executives.

"We want a one-year agreement. The Orioles prefer a three-year deal. You'd think it would be the other way around, wouldn't you?" said chief operating officer Naomi Silver.

Indeed, there was barely a ripple when the Orioles and Red Wings agreed to a two-year extension after the 1997 season. The Orioles celebrated their first American League East title in 14 years and a second consecutive berth in the AL Championship Series. Rochester pitcher Nerio Rodriguez and infielder Aaron Ledesma made significant contribu- tions. The Red Wings won the International League playoffs after the second first-place finish in three seasons under then-manager Marv Foley.

A lack of prospects, the loss of the popular Foley (now the Orioles' first base coach), a miserable season and suspicion of the Orioles' intentions have come to complicate the relationship.

Speaking to her position in last week's negotiations, Silver said: "It's about showing our fans that they're not taken for granted. We certainly anticipate staying with the Orioles. We hope they want to stay with us. But based on the way things have gone this season, we think [a one-year] extension is in everybody's best interest."

Consternation over Monday night's game abated after Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss and Wren engaged in successful shuttle diplomacy with veteran Orioles B.J. Surhoff, Brady Anderson and player representative Mike Mussina. But because the game became an embarrassing issue after Belle's supposedly facetious posting of a petition to boycott, what had been a private irritant became public spectacle, especially to Rochester fans, who tend to take their baseball personally.

"To me, Rochester is a unique place," said Foley, who is considering moving his off-season residence from Sarasota, Fla., to Rochester, which is also home to former Orioles manager Joe Altobelli. "The fans there are terrific. They love the team and the players. It's just a great area for baseball."

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle does a major-league job covering the International League, and part of its cover-to-cover presentation Tuesday included a full page of venting from Red Wings fans. Within a market that Foley calls "the best" for minor-league baseball, feedback was far from positive. Hurt by the recent controversy in Baltimore and feeling increasingly detached from an Orioles front office that recently botched a roster move involving closer Gabe Molina, baseball's third-longest affiliation is no longer an easy marriage.

To Silver and her customers, there are several major points: Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos never has visited the town. Though seen as a petty issue in Baltimore, such slights are bigger in a place compelled to dismiss "boondocks" as an apt characterization. Silver recently said: "There's not the huge bond there was 20 years ago. Management changes so much in Baltimore, it's hard to get close to anyone."

The Red Wings have enjoyed 24 winning seasons during their 39-year affiliation with the Orioles. This will not be one of them as they roll around in the International League cellar.

Most significantly, the Orioles can envision all their minor-league affiliates playing within Maryland. Under such a scenario, Aberdeen would construct a stadium and receive a lower-classification team. Bowie's impressive Prince George's County Stadium would be made suitable for a Triple-A team. Rochester would be left to seek other arrangements.

"We've heard those rumors for five, six, seven years," said Silver. "I'm not sure how close they are to becoming reality, but we're certainly aware of them."

The Red Wings could take a pre-emptive step by seeking affiliation with the New York Mets, who also have a long-standing relationship with Norfolk, Va., though Silver said no overtures have been made.

Locals also believe the club could make a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates when their contract with Nashville expires after the 2001 season.

Wren said Monday that the Orioles' desire for a three-year deal illustrates their commitment to Rochester. But as those within the warehouse examine and re-examine what direction the club will take after this season's disaster, Silver and those who have made Rochester "Baseball City, USA" want additional proof.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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