Hot or not, O's must fly white flag

July 19, 1999|By John Eisenberg

You think it's obvious. Everyone thinks it's obvious. There's no doubt the Orioles should trade some valuable assets for young players in the coming weeks and start playing for next season and beyond, right?

Well, it was just as obvious a year ago, and the Orioles elected to keep an aging team together and try for a long-shot run at the playoffs. A hot streak after the All-Star break, rendered meaningless by September, changed the organization's mind.

A year later, the Orioles are getting hot again in July after an abysmal first half that left them in last place in the American League East. They lost to the Mets last night at Camden Yards, but they had won five games in a row before that. Manager Ray Miller actually calculated wild-card chances the other night.

You can hear it coming. Feel it coming. Despite what's seemingly obvious to everyone else, the Orioles could do an about-face and keep their team together again if they keep up a winning pace much longer.

Cue the bloodcurdling scream, please.

Under no conditions should that be allowed to happen.

Keep this team together? A team stuck in a bitter fight with the mighty Devil Rays for fourth place?

It shouldn't happen even if the Orioles reel off 31 wins in 39 games, as they did a year ago. You saw how much that mattered in the end.

No, there's only one move to make at this point. Paint a sign and put it in the yard: Attention, bargain shoppers! Deals galore here! Everything priced to go!

It's time to heed the banner that's been paraded in front of the press box the past two nights, clearly intended for owner Peter Angelos' eyes:

"Come to the Orioles' July 31st Yard Sale. If You Rebuild It, They Will Come."

Amen.

Angelos has never given up on a season, of course, which is why there's any debate left over the fate of a team generally regarded as baseball's biggest bust.

When a team that's 24 games out of first place on July 31 is kept together for a playoff run, as the Orioles were last year, we're obviously not dealing with ordinary circumstances.

We're dealing with a team that'll cling to any excuse, however weak, to claim they're still in the playoff hunt.

Why such desperation? Angelos is afraid to give up on any season at the prices he's charging, which is noble enough. And with his attendance down some 3,000 a game from last season, he's also surely afraid to give fans another reason not to come. Such declines can gather momentum if a team isn't careful.

Actually, the Orioles could mount a semi-legitimate defense for keeping this team together. Yes, it's true. They're only 11 losses behind the wild-card leaders, the Red Sox. That's a lot, but not an impossible amount of ground to make up, especially with their starting pitching having stabilized behind Mike Mussina, and with so many bats producing.

But there's one, huge flaw in the argument, a flaw that, in fact, blows the whole line of reasoning.

The bullpen.

Oh, yeah, that.

You can't leave out the Orioles' Incredible Melting Bullpen, which has blown 20 of 34 save chances.

A team with such undependable late-game pitching simply is incapable of mounting a long, serious run at the playoffs from as deep in the standings as the Orioles are now.

It's like a deductible on an insurance policy: No matter what gains the rest of the team might create, you know a certain amount of ground is going to be lost courtesy of bullpen meltdowns. And the Orioles just don't have that kind of ground to lose.

The bullpen, or the lack of one, makes the issue moot. This season is a lost cause. Better to start planning for the future -- with a better relief corps.

Angelos might be surprised to see what happened if his team did go ahead and give up some stars for young blood, essentially starting over. Giving up on a season wouldn't be the Doomsday scenario he envisions.

The Baltimore baseball fan has a history of exhibiting patience, of showing a willingness to watch young players develop. It's a town that cheers effort above all, even a losing effort.

Give fans here anything to look forward to and they'll enjoy the climb as much as reaching the top. Note the enthusiastic response to rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston. It's an act that plays in this town.

The line on the banner in front of the press box last night is right, in other words. If the Orioles rebuild, the fans will come.

The issue could be moot in a few days, of course. All it would take is a minor losing streak to quash even the Orioles' fleeting, unrealistic hopes. This week's series with the Mets and Red Sox might take care of things.

But even if they don't, let there be no doubt about the proper course for the Orioles to take this year.

No flinching.

No waffling or debating.

Just make the deals.

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