Rich recipe, flat taste at Yard's sale

July 14, 2000|By JOHN EISENBERG

If the Orioles weren't already convinced that they needed to make some trades and put a jolt into their underachieving club, last night's game against the Braves at Camden Yards should have convinced them.

The backdrop couldn't have been much more inviting - the sold-out opener of a three-game series against the National League's premier team, with Greg Maddux facing Mike Mussina in a matchup of ace pitchers who usually work the All-Star Game.

A game doesn't get much better than that, especially with a John Rocker sighting and a Bobby Bonilla "homecoming" as icing on the cake, giving the knucklehead quotient something to hoot about.

So where was the buzz? Where was the all-day water-cooler talk building up to a game no one wanted to miss?

With so much going for it, shouldn't this night, of all nights, hummed with electricity?

Absolutely.

But with the Orioles stumbling along almost a dozen games under .500, entrenched in fourth place in the American League East, there's only so much electricity a night can generate.

Sure, the park was still almost full under a low covering of clouds as the Braves broke a tie in the seventh inning and beat the Orioles, 6-3, in a crackling-good game - evidence that, if anything, the city has a strong and continuing love affair with the summer game.

To understand that, you just had to measure the ovation that greeted a successful hit-and-run play with Albert Belle at bat in the bottom of the fourth, a fundamental piece of trickery seldom seen this season.

But make no mistake, the home team isn't the object of the fans' affection now so much as the game itself, the home ballpark or, hey, maybe just the sheer habit of packing up the family and going to a game.

The home team has almost become an impediment to the love affair in a way, stuck as it is in a dour cycle of mediocrity, with veterans-for-hire dominating the roster and the pitching at a low ebb.

With the Braves over in the visiting dugout last night, offering a template for how to build a lasting power (with pitching and patience) you could almost hear the fans asking for new blood, a sign of fresh life - anything, really, to break the monotony of three straight losing seasons under three different general managers.

You know the familiar chant: Younger, faster and hungrier, please.

There are signs that it might start coming soon, at long last and however late and incrementally. Asked last night if the next three weeks would decide whether the club would make trades or stand pat again, manager Mike Hargrove said, "I don't look at the next 17 to 20 days as an important barometer of which way this organization goes. I think that's been pretty much decided, and we'll see what happens as we go along."

Huh? Already been decided? Hargrove quickly backed off the statement, asking that it not be perceived as significant in any way, but with vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift having spent the past month working the phones for possible trades, it was hard not to add up the pieces and conclude that the club was more ready to deal than in years past.

Such readiness is only part of the equation, of course; you also need a willing partner and a deal you can't afford to turn down. Who knows if that will happen in the coming weeks with the Orioles having to navigate around so many no-trade clauses and guaranteed contracts and owner Peter Angelos' innate reluctance to break up a team in the middle of a season?

Those in the loud chorus calling for deals of any kind might need to be careful what they're wishing for, because they might end up seeing catcher Charles Johnson sent elsewhere, a move that would hardly qualify as a good idea, with Johnson enjoying a huge season and the club having traded closer Armando Benitez to get him before last season.

Still, the market has loosened up in the past few days, with the Yankees and Braves giving up prized prospects in major trades, taking those clubs out of the equation and seemingly putting the Orioles in line. The time is right, that's for sure.

And with or without deals, there are steps the Orioles can take to give themselves a jolt. They can play fleet rookie outfielder Luis Matos, who is still on the roster and impressing Hargrove. They can find room for Jerry Hairston, who is back from shoulder surgery and starting to hit again at Rochester. They can nurse Ryan Minor back to health and see what happens when he plays every day.

One way or another, there needs to be a break in the status quo.

Last night's sellout shouldn't be perceived in any way as a public endorsement of the way the Orioles are doing business. The fans are restless, disturbed, even bored.

A night such as this should all but burst with noise and emotion, get replayed the next day, maybe even become a piece of lore. Maddux and Mussina on a cool night in July. What poetry.

Instead, there were six innings of tight baseball, a decisive Braves rally and a big crowd filing out quietly in the end, after yet another loss.

A full house without electricity is a dark place, indeed.

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