By extension, Mussina deal would improve O's fortunes

March 21, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Go to a bar. Stand by a water cooler. Turn on a sports talk show. Hardly anyone is talking Orioles baseball. Hardly anyone is anticipating Opening Day in one of the great baseball cities in America.

The Orioles need to extend Mike Mussina's contract before the end of spring training, and restore some luster to a franchise that many of its own followers have come to scorn.

It's too late for the Orioles to generate a buzz for the coming season. But owner Peter Angelos needs to start somewhere, especially when his team might be fortunate to finish in third place.

Orioles ticket sales do not reflect fan apathy -- the club reports 2.6 million tickets sold, within range of its goal of 3 million by Opening Day. But these days, it seems that as many fans go to experience Camden Yards as to see the team.

Who can blame them?

There's little hope right now. Little promise of contention. Little assurance that management even knows what it is doing. The Orioles are in dangerous territory, and the loss of Mussina could sway public sentiment against Angelos for good.

On the other hand, the signing of Mussina could help restore the bonds that have been broken between the fans and the franchise, and help the Orioles remain a viable option for free agents seeking to play for a contender.

As the 1998 and '99 seasons attest -- and as the 2000 season is again likely to demonstrate -- the presence of Mussina alone doesn't guarantee success. But without one of the game's few legitimate aces, the Orioles would be, at best, the Detroit Tigers.

With Mussina, the future would brighten considerably. From 2001 through 2003, the Orioles' top four starters likely would be Mussina, Scott Erickson, Sidney Ponson and Matt Riley. And as the contracts of veterans expire, the Orioles finally could start building toward a better day.

At least then there would be a reason to be interested in this team.

The Orioles are coming off back-to-back sub-.500 seasons with two of the highest payrolls in major-league history. They're putting together another suspect, aging club. And they're already getting hit by injuries in spring training.

A year ago at this time, Erickson and Ponson were struggling through the exhibition season, and Scott Kamieniecki was battling a groin injury. Meanwhile, the Orioles were preparing to break camp with 11 pitchers so they could keep infielder Willis Otanez, who was out of options.

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, said that in the final days of spring training, "you could see the handwriting on the wall." Well, the handwriting is starting to look just as clear, even though new manager Mike Hargrove should handle his initial 11-man staff better than Ray Miller.

Erickson, the No. 2 starter, will miss at least the first month after undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery. Jason Johnson, the projected No. 4, is struggling in Florida. A number of position players -- most notably Brady Anderson, B. J. Surhoff and Jeff Conine -- are dealing with nagging injuries.

A year ago at this time, former general manager Frank Wren acquired Conine and Jason Johnson in separate trades, giving up only Chris Fussell and Danny Clyburn. It would behoove Thrift to make at least one similar deal, ideally for a starting pitcher.

Can Thrift pull off such a coup? His only trades so far involved Jesse Orosco and Jeff Reboulet, veterans who needed to be cleared from the roster. Thrift doesn't have much to offer, given the state of the Orioles' farm system. But then, neither did Wren.

We're not talking about a deal to thrust the Orioles into contention. We're talking about a deal to help them avert a third straight early season collapse, and keep the customers satisfied.

The Yankees are the two-time defending world champions. The Red Sox could improve with Carl Everett. The Blue Jays' young pitchers are a year older. Even the Devil Rays should be more dangerous, at least offensively.

The Orioles, meanwhile, are stuck with what they have, forced to believe that a new manager and revamped bullpen will make things better. Fans might be buying tickets, but that doesn't mean they're buying into the notion that the team can contend.

Which brings us back to Mussina.

Angelos is many things, but stupid is not one of them. Surely, he understands that the loss of Mussina could lead to an even sharper decline in the Orioles' performance, and significant numbers of empty seats for the first time in Camden Yards history.

The question no longer is the money -- Angelos, as always, seems prepared to make the necessary commitment. The question is whether Mussina truly wants to follow the example of Cal Ripken, and remain an Oriole the rest of his career.

He can go to a team like Cleveland next season and contend immediately. Or, he can stick with the Orioles in anticipation of a turnaround that might not occur before he retires. Ripken has waited 17 years for the Orioles to return to the World Series.

It seems doubtful that Mussina would remain in Baltimore if he believed the team had no chance of winning. Still, his decision to stay would amount to a remarkable show of faith, to the fans who supported him, and to the franchise that collapsed around him.

The Orioles need Mussina. Mussina doesn't need the Orioles. For those reasons and a dozen others, keeping No. 35 would be the most important victory of the season.

Who knows?

People might even start talking about the Orioles again.

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