Clubhouse leader among O's '01 questions

Inside the Orioles

Youth movement leaves void for a player who inspires by words, play

September 24, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - Who plays third base? Who plays first? How is Outfield 2001 configured?

Entering a fourth-place season's final week, they are only the most obvious questions confronting an organization prepared to extend its July makeover into next winter. But they also invite subtler, perhaps even larger questions such as who within the new mix will lead, follow or be eased out of the way.

Questions of leadership within the Orioles clubhouse often lead to suspicious answers. Characterizations of this team as cliquish, low-key and even dysfunctional have led to a defense mechanism of sorts among the lifers who remain. Now even they are endangered as Mike Mussina flirts with free agency and Cal Ripken with retirement. In their absence, who steps forward within a clubhouse that already bears little resemblance to its form from three months ago?

Next year's team will certainly be younger than the one that opened this season. How much younger is open for conjecture as the Orioles are sure to indulge themselves within the free-agent market.

The past two months have created a curiosity about a younger, less predictable team that has not translated into sustained attendance.

Indeed, since the July veteran purge, the Orioles have experienced the four smallest crowds for regularly scheduled games in Camden Yards history. But can mercenaries be leaders?

To some, the question may be both relevant and overstated.

Ripken, for one, believes a team's leadership resides in the manager's office and the coaches stalls.

"I've always thought leadership came from the manager and the coaches," he said. "That's their role. They should set the tone for the club."

He is, of course, correct in a literal sense. But there are teams where a player's personality can have as much influence as the manager. Differing directions create an undercurrent of tension and mistrust. Whatever the Orioles' problems have been this season, the clubhouse intrigue that colored the previous two seasons has never oozed from beneath Mike Hargrove's door. All meetings this season have been initiated by Hargrove, just as all during the previous two years were initiated by Ray Miller, and those in the two years before that by Davey Johnson.

Ripken can count on one hand the number of players-only meetings he has seen during his 20-year career. Mussina, a 10-year player, can't remember the last one. The Orioles have never officially recognized a captain, a role that strikes many as trite on a baseball team.

"You don't need a `C' on your chest to have influence," insisted Mussina, the team's player representative. "Being called a captain isn't going to make much of a difference if that player isn't respected. And if the player is respected, there's really no need to give him a title. It's recognized."

Mussina cited the presence of one of the game's all-time clubhouse enforcers, first baseman Will Clark, as having little to do with the team's performance. Others see the quiet, upbeat work of reliever Chuck McElroy as having a major impact on veterans and rookies alike.

"It's as much how you say something as what you say," McElroy says. "You try to keep things in perspective."

Catcher Greg Myers played in Toronto, California, Minnesota, Atlanta and San Diego before signing with the Orioles last winter. He cites pitcher Kevin Brown with the Padres and the Braves' John Smoltz as players who could convene a clubhouse meeting and not be mocked.

"It was Brown's personality. He's an intense guy. He was also respected for what he had contributed to the team. If he had something to say, people were going to listen," Myers said.

Of Smoltz, Myers said, "It would always be done in a professional, mature way. He's an intelligent guy, and that's how it would come across. It wasn't an accusatory situation."[Greg] Maddux was the same way, except he doesn't say as much. But their words have force."

Because of their typically veteran roster, the Orioles have long worked in quieter ways. Mussina has become a more vocal presence for the team's younger pitchers. Ripken says he would embrace a tutorial role for younger players if he returns next season.

Both agree that clubhouse meetings can be as divisive as they can be unifying because of potential for certain team members to feel singled out. Just such a scenario precipitated a near-brawl between second baseman Roberto Alomar and Miller during a meeting in Chicago two years ago.(Hargrove's style is to apply his criticism to all, including his staff and himself.)

Ripken's input is welcomed by Hargrove. The third baseman helped "tweak" a new set of rundown and cutoff plays last spring. However, Ripken is the last connection to an era when the Oriole Way dictated how the game was to be played.

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