At season's dawn, a few new wrinkles

New manager, old cast bring drama, scrutiny as O's meet Indians `I think [we] can contend'

Two 4th-place finishes, injuries inspire doubts

Opening Day

April 03, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

New manager Mike Hargrove jogs in from the center-field bullpen. New Mayor Martin O'Malley throws out the first ball. Cal Ripken, last seen in uniform here Sept. 14, accepts the loudest welcome. Behind them, the ivy tickles the top of the center-field backdrop and Mike Mussina waits impatiently to square off against ever-nasty Bartolo Colon.

This is how a new season greets the Orioles with about 48,000 fans, a jaded sense of expectation and a little intrigue in attendance.

Pairing the Orioles and Cleveland Indians provides several Opening Day coincidences and dramas. Long ago tired of questions concerning his former employer, Hargrove downplays the matchup against a team that dumped him after five consecutive division championships.

"That page was turned a while ago," he says.

All three finalists for last October's managerial vacancy -- Hargrove, third base coach Sam Perlozzo and new Indians bench coach Grady Little -- will be in the ballpark today.

A renovated, scrutinized warehouse would like nothing better than to compose a different chapter after consecutive well-financed fourth-place finishes.

The Orioles will attempt to do so with virtually the same core from last season's 78-84 bunch but are convinced staying healthy coupled with a revamped bullpen would justify a turnaround.

"I think this team can contend," Hargrove said before leaving Florida.

They will have to do so initially without workhorse Scott Erickson and with a starting rotation redone with less than two weeks remaining in spring training. New pitching coach Sammy Ellis arrived in camp projecting 28 to 32 innings for his starting pitchers. He left with only No. 2 starter Sidney Ponson reaching the threshold. Erickson underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery on March 3, the day he had been scheduled to pitch the Orioles' exhibition opener. Jason Johnson consumed 22 innings before yielding his No. 3 spot in the rotation.

His fall represents the biggest failure of camp. Calvin Maduro, 25, and Jose Mercedes, 29, are the replacements. They own a combined 14-23 major-league record. Neither was seen above Triple-A last season.

While waiting for Erickson's hoped-for return later this month, Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift remains confident the makeshift rotation can avert anything resembling last season's calamitous 6-16 April.

"If this team stays healthy -- if it can stay healthy -- I see no reason to doubt the talent exists for us to be a playoff-caliber team," says Thrift, increasingly impatient with perceptions of the team as aged and tired. "Ultimately, we'll go as far as our pitching takes us."

No one questions this team's experience or its professionalism. Hargrove, who perceived a dispirited bunch from across the field last season, has spoken glowingly of its work ethic. As currently composed, the Orioles will have eight players 35 or older at season's end. Harold Baines is 41 and Ripken will be 40. A case can be made that at least four future Hall of Famers -- Ripken, Baines, Albert Belle and Mike Mussina -- adorn the roster.

The Orioles, however, often looked old during their 13-16 spring -- an assessment relayed to majority owner Peter Angelos by several advisers and confirmed firsthand by a shoddy performance during Investors Weekend. Hargrove defended his team against "negative spin" during camp's final days and demanded that his team be given the chance to belie lowered expectations.

Thrift likewise believes anyone foolhardy who evaluates a veteran team in spring training.

"Veterans of this stature know how to prepare themselves for a season. They're time-tested," says Thrift. "The last I heard, the reason for spring training is to be ready for the season."

Injuries hampered that goal for much of camp. A flu bug took down several players, including shortstop Mike Bordick, utility man Jeff Conine and starting pitcher Pat Rapp while tendinitis slowed Conine and left fielder B. J. Surhoff. Backup catcher Greg Myers had missed five consecutive games with a sore hamstring before Hargrove tested him Saturday. Results were mixed. Myers slammed a 420-foot home run in the seventh inning but had a spike catch on the swing, causing him to further wrench his left hamstring. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list yesterday and could miss significantly more time.

Ripken, who hit only .143 without a home run in 63 exhibition at-bats, is barely six months removed from back surgery. First baseman Will Clark (elbow) and second baseman Delino DeShields (hamstring) are back from season-ending surgeries. Center fielder Brady Anderson suffered a freak nerve injury while icing his left knee March 10. He missed the next 17 days with a palsy that forced him to adopt an air splint to support his tender left ankle.

"There are positives in everything," says Thrift. "The absence of some of our veterans allowed us to get an extended look at some younger players. That's exciting to me."

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