Wings likely to keep O's ties

Triple-A Rochester had considered split after 40-year run

July 20, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The ties between the Orioles and Rochester Red Wings once represented a relationship as loyal as it was productive -- a model major-league franchise and its prize Triple-A affiliate that served as the last link of the game's most envied player development pipeline.

Times have changed, complicated by several ownership transfers, the franchise's increased dependence on free agency at the expense of home-grown talent and fan perception that the ties binding Baltimore to Rochester have loosened.

Consecutive losing seasons and incessant organizational upheaval left Red Wings chairman and chief operating officer Naomi Silver to consider severing the team's 40-year relationship with the Orioles. However, Silver said yesterday that she believes it likely she will agree to a two-year extension with the Orioles through 2002.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's sports section incorrectly reported that Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, attended the Double-A all-star baseball game in Bowie last week. Director of player development Don Buford represented the Orioles at the game.
The Sun regrets the error.

"In order for us to go with another team, we have to believe the other team is a better organization than the Orioles. I don't see too many of those out there," Silver says.

Silver concedes she might be more willing to separate from the Orioles if the New York Mets, New York Yankees or Cleveland Indians were interested in changing affiliates. The Pittsburgh Pirates are also believed a possibility, but their agreement with Nashville doesn't expire until 2002. Given such a landscape, Silver doesn't see a compelling reason to change allegiance.

"If you take those possibilities away, the Orioles rank very high," says Silver.

The relationship apparently will also survive a unscientific fan poll conducted earlier this month by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that showed 66.9 percent of respondents preferred switching to another parent club. The leading reason for dissatisfaction was the team's perceived preference for Double-A Bowie and the absence of prospects at Rochester. Red Wings fans don't need to be reminded that Cal Ripken and Mike Mussina are the last everyday position player and starting pitcher to fill the same roles with the Orioles for an extended period.

"I believe people who respond to those things feel very passionately in a negative way. These are the people looking for change," Silver says. "People who feel comfortable with the status quo don't respond, and that really skews the result."

The Red Wings may file for a kind of free agency on Aug. 20. Such a move would allow them to negotiate with other organizations and, according to officials both in Baltimore and Rochester, represent a de facto divorce. Such moves are not taken lightly in Rochester, which has been affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals and Orioles for a combined 73 years.

Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift contends some of the problems have been "exaggerated." Real issues have been addressed, he says.

"I think our relationship has improved in the past year," Thrift says. "We've moved to address their concerns, and they recognize that. Nobody up there has suggested [an extension] is a major problem. I won't consider it one until they do."

A clubhouse protest over having to play an exhibition at Frontier Field last July irritated Rochester fans who had no idea that many players believed the game had been canceled in return for their participation in the March exhibition against a Cuban select team. Word of right fielder Albert Belle posting a petition at his locker calling for a players' boycott of the game inflamed the matter. A security guard was assigned to shadow Belle for his protection.

When Belle and the sore-backed Ripken left the game after batting in the top of the first inning, a number of fans booed. The exhibition was also abbreviated to seven innings.

"Most people who attended the exhibition thought it was fine. It was what people read about" that was disturbing, Silver says. "Everyone knew Albert Belle didn't want to come. That left an impression with people that it was an awful event when it wasn't. Overall, last year was an incredibly tough season for us. People made a lot of decisions based on last year."

The controversy was not the first to mar the game. In 1997, second baseman Roberto Alomar did not attend the game and was fined $10,500 by manager Davey Johnson.

The fine -- and Johnson designating that it be paid to a charity that had retained his wife, Susan, as a fund-raiser -- eventually became a catalyst for Johnson resigning under pressure that November following the team's second straight appearance in the American League Championship Series. (Alomar never paid the fine.)

The return of former Orioles first base coach Marv Foley to Rochester was hugely popular. This season's acquisition of nonroster outfielder Karim Garcia and his $700,000 salary was also well-received. A drop in attendance is attributed to brutal April and May weather.

"We value our relationship with Rochester very much," says Thrift. "And I think the people of Rochester value their longstanding relationship with us."

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