Patience brings light of new day

Preview: With payroll and expectations down, the reconfigured, re-energized Orioles are up to something completely different.

April 01, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles begin a new approach this season. Rather than attempting to sell high expectations, they'll let others believe lowered ones while trying to prove them wrong.

Allow Delino DeShields to issue the challenge: "People don't think we've got anything here this year. That's OK.

"We'll play it on the field this time and see what happens. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people, but I don't think we'll surprise ourselves," says DeShields, the starting left fielder this season after spending 11 seasons at second base. "We've got guys who are going to play hard and play the game the way it's supposed to be played.

"I'm tired of being good on paper. I've been on a lot of teams that were good on paper but weren't so good on the field. That's not what I'm looking for," he says. The 2001 Orioles bear little resemblance to the team that opened last season with an $80 million payroll then swooned to a 74-88, fourth-place finish.

The team of B. J. Surhoff, Mike Timlin, Charles Johnson and Will Clark has become one of Melvin Mora, Brook Fordyce, Ryan Kohlmeier and Chris Richard. An organization known for its long-term contracts and roster inflexibility now vows to look for its future within.

"This is not an overnight deal," manager Mike Hargrove says. "If anybody expects it to be, they're whistling in the dark. You've got to have patience in everything you do."

The Orioles will send out an Opening Day lineup tomorrow with only two players returning to the same positions as last April 3. One of them, shortstop Mike Bordick, has since been traded and re-signed. The other, third baseman Cal Ripken, serves as team elder for the first time in his 21-year career.

The roster is filled with players long on minor-league accomplishment but short on major-league experience. The face of the team is no longer Albert Belle's scowl but Jerry Hairston's zeal. A filthy uniform is now a badge of honor. As many as six rookies could open the season at Camden Yards.

"A year ago, I was a caretaker. This year, I'm a teacher. That's how you look at managing," Hargrove says. "[New York Yankees manager] Joe Torre is a caretaker right now. That's not a knock. That's what his team requires, and he does it extremely well. John Boles with the Florida Marlins the last two years has been a teacher. And that club has now developed to a point where expectations have increased."

Changing perceptions

The Orioles are no longer trying to tantalize their fan base with postseason visions. Instead of instant gratification, the club preaches patience. "We're an easy target right now," Hargrove says. "Everybody here knows that. The only way to stop being a target is to demonstrate progress."

They will attempt to do so within a skeptical environment. Attendance dropped for the third straight year in 2000 - the 3,295,185 total was down 4 percent from 1999 and 11 percent from the all-time high in 1997. TV ratings overall declined 21 percent.

No team during the winter absorbed body blows more severe than the Orioles, topped by a stinging article that appeared in Sports Illustrated just before spring training. Owner Peter Angelos, who funded a once-bankrupt franchise to postseason appearances in 1996 and 1997, was depicted as strangling an Oriole bird in an accompanying caricature.

Numerous publications rank the team as the worst in the game, a perception shared by Las Vegas sports books, which list the Orioles as 300-1 shots to win the World Series. Even small-market teams such as the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos receive more respect.

"This guy [Angelos] gets ripped a lot. But maybe if people looked at what's going on, they'd see he's willing to try something different. Maybe he's learned," says one club official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity.

Instead of firing his manager last winter, as he had done twice before, Angelos assumed Hargrove's option and allowed him to hire his pitching coach in Cleveland, Mark Wiley. Instead of inflating an inefficient payroll, the club is pruning what it considers dead wood.

"I don't think we were as good as some people thought," says right fielder Brady Anderson, one of only five players remaining from the 1997 American League East championship team. "There were some deficiencies. I think everyone remembered how good we were in '97 and how good we were supposed to be in '98. But for whatever reason, it wasn't happening."

"Winning is the only thing that ever counts in the final analysis," says Syd Thrift, vice president for baseball operations. "But as a fan, when you go to a game and see your team get beat 2-1 or 4-3 and you're in the game, I don't think anybody is disappointed going home.

"We have a lot of dirty-uniform players on this team," he says. "The average baseball fan loves that. They love energy."

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