Orioles players can't play blame game this season

March 07, 2000|By John Eisenberg

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- One thing you didn't hear from the Orioles' players after the last out of the 1999 season:

Our fault.

They didn't exactly rush to take the blame for finishing fourth in the American League East despite having one of the game's highest payrolls.

Manager Ray Miller was more at fault. So was pitching coach Bruce Kison. And the annoying Cuba games. And the chaos resulting from the latest front office shuffle.

And whatever.

Oh, sure, there was more than enough owning up after the disappointing season, but the general undercurrent in the clubhouse was unmistakable: Our bad? Come on, get serious. Look at all that other stuff.

A year later, they can't lateral the blame so easily, if at all. Their litany of convenient excuses has vanished.

Miller is gone, fired shortly after the season and replaced by Mike Hargrove, one of the game's winningest managers over the past decade.

Kison also is gone, replaced by Sammy Ellis, a veteran recognized as a guru of pitching mechanics.

Cuba? It's a trouble spot and a distraction for the federal government this year, but not for the Orioles.

And although there was yet another front office transmutation after last season, resulting in the ouster of rookie general manager Frank Wren, the roster is basically unchanged from a year ago, so everyone isn't busy getting to know each other this spring.

All systems are go, all excuses are gone.

Time for the players to stand up and be accountable.

Time to find out whether the sum of their highly expensive parts was the problem last season, or whether their excuses were valid.

Miller was problem No. 1 in their eyes, of course, a position supported by many fans and others in the baseball industry. A superb pitching coach, he stands accused of having over-worked his bullpen, blundered through tricky tactical situations and generally failed to command respect and lead with authority.

His real trial on those charges comes now, not that he cares anymore, with Hargrove steering the same, basic club except for an overhauled bullpen.

A better performance under Hargrove obviously would reflect poorly on Miller and make him look that much worse, if that's possible.

Conversely, a similarly disappointing performance under Hargrove would raise an interesting question: Just how much was Miller at fault? And shouldn't the players, the ones doing the hitting and pitching, take more of the blame?

It's still early at this point, and with Hargrove still undefeated, open season on the former manager is currently in session. Few Orioles are outwardly criticizing Miller in his absence this spring, but again, the undercurrent is unmistakable. Second baseman Delino DeShields arrived in camp saying he'd now played for the best manager in the game and also the worst, obviously referring to the Cardinals' Tony La Russa and Miller. Few of his teammates would disagree.

Hargrove, to his credit, already is commanding more respect than Miller, thanks to a record including five division titles and two American League pennants, all won in Cleveland since 1995. At the very least, he's an established pro who manages for the long haul and knows how to win. Fairly or not, you can almost hear the players sighing with relief.

But what happens during the season is what counts, and who knows how Hargrove will hold up directing a club less imposing and possibly less successful than those he had in Cleveland?

The early returns on the Ellis-for-Kison trade at pitching coach also are good, primarily because Ellis, an old pro, wisely incorporated the pitchers' opinions when establishing workout routines for the season. Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson, the heart of the starting rotation, had indifferent relationships with Kison, although they combined for 33 wins under his direction last season.

But again, spring training has barely started and no one has lost any games that count yet, so it's easy to see the glass half-full. There's a long way to go.

The only negative -- and potential excuse -- that has arisen so far is Erickson's elbow injury, which led to surgery last week and his expected absence from the rotation until early May. Yes, contract issues with Mussina and Charles Johnson also have made headlines, but that's part of the game. Basically, there aren't any anti-Castro protesters picketing Fort Lauderdale Stadium, and things are going a lot smoother. The club is even winning, not that its 3-1 record after yesterday's 17-3 bashing of the Dodgers means anything.

There are always potential obstacles with this franchise, of course, always the chance of unseen controversies arising and hindering success. It's the history of the Orioles in the '90s, a history adept at providing targets for blame when things go wrong.

Right now, there's nothing of the sort. Everything is fine. The players have the better support system they wanted, the more established manager, the spring season free of distractions.

Now it's up to them to deliver.

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