Sinking feelings abound as Orioles begin 2001 odyssey

April 02, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

TO SAY THE ORIOLES are getting their share of bad press is to say, well, let's see, that the Bush-Gore election ran a little long. Or that Duke usually gets Maryland in the end.

The Orioles are experiencing Criticism Maximus -- the opposite of Festivus Maximus -- as the 2001 season begins today at Camden Yards against Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox. Opening Day is for kids and optimists, a celebration of green grass and all that can happen, but the going is tough this year. Sports Illustrated ranked the Orioles 29th out of the 30 major-league teams. ESPN made light of their "Come See The Kids" promotional campaign, pointing out that their lineup is still among the game's oldest. Many magazines and Web sites have picked them to finish last in the American League East, behind even Tampa Bay.

Rough stuff. Not that anyone should expect otherwise when the team loses its ace from a 74-88 club and its front office decision-making is so dubious that the abrupt loss of the cleanup hitter and highest-paid player in franchise history is deemed a plus.

The club's response to the criticism is to plead for patience and pinpoint the more distant future as a time to expect more success -- a reasonable request given last season's overdue purge of veterans, yet a request fans shouldn't necessarily trust given the club's recent player-development record.

The club also responds to the broadside of criticism by pointing to the last time such scorn was heaped on the Orioles before a season -- in 1989, when everyone penciled in a last-place finish and the "Why Not?" Orioles almost won the American League East with a collection of rookies and journeymen.

With all due respect, the analogy is tenuous at best.

The 1989 club sprinkled a few veterans on a cast of youngsters, the opposite of this year's blend. The 1989 club was built around fast outfielders who ran everything down; this year's Opening Day outfield consists of converted infielders who can hit and need a place to play.

With questionable pitching and minimal power, the 2001 Orioles are more likely to end up as a throwback to the 1988 club, which lost 107 games, than a 1989 club held sacred in many parts around here.

The best guess here is another fourth-place finish in the AL East and a fourth straight losing season for the first time since the franchise moved from St. Louis 47 years ago. If the Orioles prove better than that, I'm like everyone else -- I need to see it before I believe it.

This is the kind of season in which, if absolutely everything goes right, the Orioles could almost make a run at .500. And if too much goes wrong, things could get ugly.

Every team is banking on less-than-guaranteed assumptions at this point; that's the nature of the game. But the Orioles have more assumptions than many teams. They're assuming that Cal Ripken will be healthy and productive enough at 40 to hold down third base; that Ryan Kohlmeier is ready at 23 to be an everyday closer; that Jose Mercedes can approach 14 wins again; that Chuck McElroy can convert to a starter after a long career as a reliever; that Chris Richard is ready to be a major contributor off just 199 at-bats with the club last season; that Jason Johnson will improve on last year's 1-10 record.

Some of those assumptions will hold up and others won't, but either way, as Mark Twain might have written, it's a lot of assumin'.

The uncertainties produce a domino effect, too, adding pressure in the few places where the club is solid. Pat Hentgen, today's starter, is a fine veteran with 120 career wins, but at this point, he isn't an Opening Day-type pitcher, at least not on a contender. Likewise, first baseman David Segui is a late-blooming star, but he would bat third or sixth on a contender and the Orioles have him at cleanup.

That's not to say there's nothing to recommend the club. Richard, Kohlmeier, Johnson, Jerry Hairston and Sidney Ponson represent new blood in the veins, with Jay Gibbons and Mike Kinkade also possibilities. Charting their development as potential building blocks will be interesting, no matter what the standings say.

Other positives include the return of shortstop Mike Bordick, always a pleasure to watch, and the absence of the usual, tired debate about whether the manager will be fired, a staple of the Orioles' recent past. Shoot, with pitching coach Mark Wiley signed to a multi-year contract, there's almost stability among the on-field decision-makers.

And, of course, as previously stated, removing Albert Belle from the mix automatically stamps the season as a step in the right direction, even though his bat will be missed in the short term.

But overall, even on Opening Day, it's hard to summon enough optimism to envision a reprise of 1989 coming together to continue the amazing run of good fortune that has recently sprouted locally with the Ravens' Super Bowl triumph morphing into the Terps' first trip to the Final Four.

It was fun while it lasted. Pedro goes today. A guy who gave up a run -- one -- during spring training.

Yes, for those with memories, the 1989 season also began with a home opener against the Red Sox and their supposedly unbeatable ace, Roger Clemens in those days. The Orioles came through and won that day, with Ripken hitting a big homer and a big crowd going home jazzed. The players who experienced it still talk about the positive vibes that started that day and lasted all season.

Today's game against Martinez offers a similar challenge and a similar chance to paint a good start on a season expected to go bad.

Let the comparison to 1989 begin.

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