Hot at home, O's homely on the road

July 06, 2000|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK - How baffling is the split personality the Orioles have exhibited at home and on the road this season?

So baffling that first baseman Will Clark, who has never met a subject he couldn't expound on, is rendered speechless.

"I have no explanation," Clark said before the Orioles' 12-6 loss to the Yankees last night at Yankee Stadium, dropping their road record to 13-33, by far the worst in the major leagues.

Yet the same team is 23-13 at Camden Yards, 23-9 if you throw out one series with the Red Sox.

"I've played on teams that were good at home and not as good on the road, but as far as playing extremely well at home and extremely poorly on the road, this is the weirdest I've seen," said Clark, a 14-year veteran.

He's not the only one without an explanation, either.

"I can't put a finger on it," reliever Chuck McElroy said.

"Sometimes things happen that have no explanation," added manager Mike Hargrove. "One year in Cleveland we were 12-0 in extra-inning games, and the next year we were 2-12. Same team, opposite results. You can't explain that. And I don't think you can explain this [home/road] thing, either."

Actually, maybe you can, at least to some degree. And that explanation has nothing to do with the flawed notion that the players somehow concentrate more, focus better or try harder at home. That's hogwash.

This isn't pro football, a physical, emotional game in which hometown fans can inspire players. This is major-league baseball, a game of reflexes and stilled nerves; a game in which the players almost have to forget where they are to keep their wits and get the job done.

"Frankly, when you reach this level, you barely even pay attention to where you're playing," Clark said.

OK, it does have some effect. The Orioles are .558 at home and .506 on the road in their history. Most teams in every sport always fare a little better at home.

"Something about sleeping in your own bed, getting a good night's sleep, not having to travel," Clark said.

But those subtle persuasions can't begin to explain this year's drastic disparity for the Orioles - a .639 winning percentage at home and .265 on the road - which is so profound that it's hard just to shrug and dismiss it as a freakish statistical event, a roll of the dice.

Nor can you chalk it up to excessive road warrior-itis, otherwise known as having a little too much fun away from home. "If this was a team that burned the candle at both ends, you could point to that," Hargrove said, "but we don't have a lot of guys who like the night life. It's a boring club in that respect, which is good."

So why can't they win on the road? Go back to when the Orioles went wire-to-wire to win the American League East in 1997. They were 52-29 away from Camden Yards that season, and that was without a powerhouse offense. They dominated with relief pitching and defense.

This year, relief pitching and defense are the biggest problems for a team that's 10 games under .500 and stuck in fourth place.

And make no mistake, those problem spots are bigger on the road.

Defensively, the Orioles lack range in the outfield, but the cozy dimensions of Camden Yards allow their outfielders to run down a fair number of balls there. Those same balls turn into doubles and triples at SkyDome, Yankee Stadium and parks with bigger outfields, where the gaps between the outfielders are much greater.

If you think that doesn't at least partly explain why the team's ERA is almost two points higher on the road, think again.

And as far as having a weak bullpen, which the Orioles surely do, the fact that it's a bigger problem on the road comes down to a single, simple fact: The other team bats last.

Yeah, that.

Not to belabor the obvious, but if your bullpen blows it in the last inning on the road, you don't get a second chance. And the Orioles' bullpen has blown almost a dozen games in the opposition's last at-bat this season.

Of such shortcomings are road woes made.

OK, maybe there's no fully explaining a team this drastically different at home and on road, alternately dominating and dominated.

"There have been a few times [on the road] this year where you just have to scratch your head and say, 'What in the heck is going on?' " Clark said.

But there's an old clubhouse bromide that says there are no bad road teams in baseball, just bad teams, period. In other words, a team that loses a lot on the road probably is going to lose a lot wherever it plays.

With a 36-46 record, the Orioles have no defense against such an accusation.

Their biggest problem on the road is that they aren't a winning team, period.

Still, with one of the best home records in the game, they're nothing if not a multiple-personality case.

"It's strange stuff, no doubt," Hargrove said, "and me, I'm just not smart enough to figure it out."

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