At loss, Rochester set to cut ties

Inside the Orioles

Red Wings CEO says `too many lean years' exhaust her patience

September 02, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Orioles baseball is in Naomi Silver's blood, but it soon may be leaving Rochester, N.Y.

A season devoted to heightened visibility for the Orioles' oft-scrutinized player development system comes to a disappointing close today with Silver, chairman and chief operating officer of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, providing a sobering requiem.

In statements originally published in Thursday's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and only slightly softened Friday, Silver says her franchise is prepared to end its 41-year relationship with the Orioles after next season for reasons of insufficient talent and confusing methodology.

"We've been playing ball here for a long time. And we understand how important the development process is. But it's probably been a few too many lean years in a row," Silver said Friday afternoon, one day after her interview critical of the Orioles appeared in the Democrat and Chronicle. "Many of us feel it would not have taken a great deal of change for this to have been a great club. However, without a couple veterans to lead the charge, it makes it abundantly more difficult to win."

The Red Wings, who began the weekend 59-81, end their fourth straight losing season today while trying to avoid a last-place finish in the North Division of the International League. Not since the Red Wings became affiliated with the Orioles in 1961 has the relationship shown such strain.

"We can't endure another losing season," Silver said Friday afternoon. "That would be very difficult. To suffer through four losing seasons ... we don't want to go through that again."

Silver said nothing short of a winning year in 2002 will prevent her club from declaring free agency when its contract with the Orioles expires after next season.

A year after Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos came to Rochester to pledge an improved product - along with purchasing 100 season tickets at Frontier Field - Silver says this season's uninspired concoction is pushing the parties toward divorce.

"It's killing us," Silver said. "I believe [Angelos] understands our situation. I don't think he likes not having a winner at any level. I appreciated him coming in last year. But I think at some point we have to say regardless of what the intentions are, the proof is in the record."

Silver curtly rejected the Orioles' offer of a three-year extension in 1999 for a one-year arrangement. She re-upped for two years before this season because of Angelos' pledge of a greater commitment to her concerns. Now Silver, whose father owned the club before her, has joined the legions who wonder how the Orioles go about putting together their minor-league teams. First baseman Calvin Pickering became the first Red Wing since 1998 to make the International League All-Star team before being traded to the Cincinnati Reds on Thursday.

"We're tired of apologizing for what we have to put on the field," Silver told the Rochester paper earlier this month.

Silver is frankly posing the very questions that ownership should be asking. The Orioles' reputation for sterling player development died a generation ago and has been replaced by unkept promises of imminent self-sufficiency. Unless second baseman Jerry Hairston squeezes another 100 at-bats from this season, Cal Ripken will retire as the last player drafted, developed and deployed by the organization to achieve 550 at-bats in a season for the Orioles.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift previously has implied a casual connection between player development and an affiliate's won-loss record, but Friday suggested a closer tie.

"I think if we're going to develop players properly, we have to win," Thrift said. "I think winning and development are part of the same. I don't think you can train players on losing teams and expect them to come to the majors and win. Winning is a habit."

By that standard, the system has absorbed a depressing season.

The Double-A Bowie Baysox will finish in last place of the Southern League's Eastern Division. The Orioles' six minor-league affiliates entered the weekend with a combined 296-374 record.

Several high-ceiling pitchers, including former first-rounders Beau Hale and Richard Stahl, suffered injuries. Few position prospects distinguished themselves, including 20-year-old Ed Rogers, who last December was projected by some in upper management as a potential Opening Day shortstop for the Orioles but had to be returned to Frederick after struggling badly at Bowie. On a scale of 1-10, several front office members graded the season "a two."

"I think they had a reason to be disappointed. We were, too," Thrift said. "But on the other hand, the record has improved since July."

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