IF BALTIMORE IS indeed a baseball town, then its passion for the game will be severely challenged for the next couple of seasons.
The team waved a white flag on the 2000 season and sent a signal to its fans about two weeks ago that it was rebuilding for the future when it traded some of its Golden Boys of Summer for some new blood that included 14 new players.
But rebuilding means at least two more years of marginal baseball, and adds to the frustration of a city that has endured two straight losing seasons with a third in the making.
That's a long time. Maybe too long.
Even Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, isn't sure how long it will take to straighten this team out.
"I don't call it rebuilding," Thrift said. "I look at it as building a winning organization and getting the ingredients you need to have a winning team. At the present time, we have a blend of young players and veteran players. First-year players usually don't perform at a high level, they go through peaks and valleys. The more they play, the less peaks and valleys.
"It's difficult to say exactly, " Thrift said when asked when the team might climb back into serious contention. "But during free agency, we need to do a real good job in the selection process for 2001 and 2002. The show that's on our screen now is not finished, we don't have the end. It has to be continued. We'll have different names, more players. That's the interesting part of the future."
Thrift said this is what the city wanted, younger players. But at least with the Golden Boys, there was always a hope, though extremely slight, that the players would leap from their rocking chairs and make a serious playoff run in one last hurrah.
Oh, what a story that could have been ...
But that's gone now.
Reality is here and so are the Baby-Faced Birds. There is always an enthusiasm associated with youth, and young players such as second baseman Jerry Hairston, center fielder Luis Matos and pitchers Jason Johnson, Sidney Ponson, Ryan Kohlmeier and John Parrish might be a foundation for the future.
But the excitement might start to fade with mounting losses in 2001. It happened early this season. The Orioles like to point out that their average game attendance of 42,842 is the highest in baseball, but it's misleading. That's tickets sold. There are 10,000 to 15,000 no-shows at home games now.
Baltimore fans are no different from any others in this country. They like winners, too. But wins and losses is not the team's only problem.
The resignations or firings of top Orioles officials such as Kevin Malone, Doug Melvin, Frank Wren and Pat Gillick over the years shows an unstable organization.
The departure of broadcaster Jon Miller and the firing of former manager Davey Johnson were public relations disasters.
"If Angelos [Orioles owner Peter Angelos] says he is willing to put a product on the field worth coming for, the fans will come," said John Sherbert, 40, of LaPlata, as he entered the ballpark last night. "He has to show that he is willing to put a pitching staff together, and stop getting rid of key players, key managers and key general managers.
"To me, the problem with Orioles is Angelos. Davey Johnson is gone because he can't get along with the manager. You had one of best GMs in baseball, he is gone. You had another great GM who is lined up to be the next GM in Atlanta, and he is gone. It has to stop."
But the problems don't stop there.
Who becomes the team's drawing card next season?
Mike Bordick, Harold Baines, B. J. Surhoff and Will Clark are gone. With negotiations at a standstill, ace pitcher Mike Mussina might be waving bye, too.
Who is left?
Brady Anderson. Hee-hee. Next. Even icon Cal Ripken no longer has that aura of invincibility. For most of his career, he was a symbol of what was right with the Orioles, but in the last couple of seasons he has become a symbol of what is wrong with this team.
That leaves Albert Belle. In Baltimore, he wouldn't be bought at a two-for-one sale for 10 cents at a flea market.
"This team markets itself," Thrift said. "When you walk in the streets, this is what they [the fans] have been asking for two years. They like the energy, the enthusiasm, the spirit. Wherever you go, you can find people who are attached to this team right now.`
But do they draw top free agents? Which players in the off-season will come to a team not in contention?
"We're not finished yet," Thrift said. "I believe players are very knowledgeable about where you are, where you're going, where you been and how you're going to get there. One closer who can close and save 35 games can make a huge difference in this team."
Interesting. The Orioles, though, are more than one closer away. And if things start to go bad next season, they have to fight a recent history filled with departures and inconsistency. Even some of their hard-core fans might leave.
"I doubt that, I question that," said Mike Spisak, 36, of Hyattsville. "They have talent, they just need to put it together. I will support them 100 percent. I'm loyal to the team."
So is Kevin Jenkins, 27, of Essex. He said he has been to every home game this season.
"I'm a die-hard fan," Jenkins said. "But I prefer they put a major-league team out there. I'm not too excited about this. I would prefer more wins. I don't know if I'll be here every time next year. It depends on talent out there, how much money they spend, if they want to bring some quality pitchers in.
"Look at the attendance," he says. "It's not what it was in May."