New manager, new expectations for O's

Challenge excites Hargrove

Mussina guards optimism over changes, fresh start

February 18, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles threw open spring training to pitchers and catchers yesterday. There was no buzz about a possible game of baseball diplomacy, no whispers of organizational intrigue. In the manager's office, Mike Hargrove broke the seal on a box of cigars. In the clubhouse, Mike Mussina expressed his own brand of wry optimism.

Sports talk babble, preseason publications and a noticeably lower attendance at the club's January FanFest create an impression of expectations lower than at any time since before 1996, when the organization emerged from the Phil Regan regime to gain its first playoff berth in 13 years.

Asked about it, Hargrove answers with a quiet confidence.

"I've found that the expectations I have for myself, the people I work with and the players are usually higher than a lot of other expectations. You expect a lot out of yourself when you're good at what you do," said Hargrove. "It doesn't make me afraid facing it. It makes me excited."

Hargrove succeeds Ray Miller after consecutive fourth-place finishes. Considered a wild-card contender before last season, the Orioles retain much the same look but with fresh perspective.

Hargrove is among those who considered last season's Orioles underachievers within what he describes as "the toughest division in professional sports." That the Orioles followed a 78-84 season with minimal restructuring suggests internal agreement that the club is capable of more.

"I don't blame the fans if their expectations aren't high. If I was a fan, I'd probably feel the same way. But that doesn't mean our expectations within the ballclub aren't high," Hargrove said.

A skeptical public -- attendance at FanFest was estimated at 16,000, compared with a high of 18,000 in 1998 -- is something new for Hargrove, who last year tried to motivate his Cleveland Indians by establishing a goal of 100 regular-season wins during spring training. Expectations were so high that the Indians' 97 wins and fifth straight American League Central title couldn't save his job.

"I think if we lost five games in a row people thought the end of the world was coming," Hargrove said. "I understood that reaction. They expected us to win the division and win the World Series. I had the same expectations. But I felt at times people allowed their expectations to cloud reality. It's real easy in baseball to forget that you play from the first of April to October in the regular season. If you go into a four- or five-game losing streak, it's not fun but it's not the end of everything."

As pitchers and catchers straggled through the Fort Lauderdale Stadium clubhouse yesterday, the Orioles were more focused on beginnings than endings.

Mussina said he believes this season can't be like last. Hargrove's presence and the absence of a disconcerting March trip to Cuba already represent improvements, Mussina said. Though so far he has only had a two-minute phone conversation with Sammy Ellis, Mussina hopes the Orioles' seventh pitching coach in seven seasons will create a give-and-take relationship with a largely veteran bunch.

"It's basically the same team with a staff change. Hopefully, that will make us a better team," Mussina said. "I think our expectations are to play better as a team the first two months of the season. That's the whole reason we weren't close the last two years."

Last year, the Orioles never challenged after a 6-16 April. Mussina traces the meltdown to even before Opening Day.

"We had the whole Cuba thing going on last year. We had the manager thing going on when people thought he should have been fired the year before," Mussina said. "Everybody was wondering, `Is he going to make it three weeks? Is he going to make it through May? Is he going to make it through June? We can all read. People are saying these things and we're wondering some of this stuff, too. `Is the manager going to make it the whole year or do we get a new pitching coach fired?'

"There was so much stuff last year. That stuff's not here."

Mussina said his pending free agency won't become a distraction. The Orioles have offered him a five-year, $50 million deal while he is seeking a six-year package approaching $14 million per season. Rather than set artificial deadlines or place an embargo on talks once the season begins, Mussina reiterated he will wait patiently while his agent, Arn Tellem, handles talks.

"I think I've always felt it would be longer instead of shorter. I didn't assume it would be a two-week deal and be over," Mussina said. "It's a pretty serious negotiation; it's not something you hash out over a couple days."

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