Angelos sets .500 as O's goal

If club falters badly, owner may refocus on free-agent market

Attendance drop anticipated

He praises Thrift, says hiring Hargrove was `right decision'

March 21, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles owner Peter Angelos expects his club to play at least .500 this season, he told The Sun yesterday, and changes could be coming if the team stumbles as it did a year ago.

The Orioles went 63-98 last year, their fourth consecutive losing season, and the team considers this a rebuilding year. During the off-season, the Orioles chose not to make major moves on the free-agent market, reducing their projected Opening Day payroll to about $41 million as they try to build around younger, less-expensive players. Still, Angelos sounds optimistic.

"Certainly, we expect to play at least .500 ball, and hopefully much better than that," Angelos said in a wide-ranging phone interview from his Baltimore law office. "I would say one could term that an expectation."

The Orioles finished 2001 with their worst record since they went 54-107 in 1988, but they attributed much of that to injuries, as veteran acquisitions Mike Bordick, Pat Hentgen and David Segui each had long stints on the disabled list. On July 1, the Orioles were 39-42. But when the injuries mounted, they lost 56 of their final 80 games.

Angelos said another 98-loss season would force the organization to rethink its current plan, especially regarding its approach to free agency.

"If you have a similar number of injuries, then maybe you can't avoid that kind of very unacceptable season," Angelos said. "But we're not expecting that, and certainly that doesn't happen every season.

"So if we don't have an inordinate number of injuries and we have the same kind of record, one would have to conclude we need to indulge ourselves in the free-agent market to a larger extent than we have in the recent past. A much larger extent."

Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, said he hasn't set a specific number of wins as this team's objective.

With several young players playing key roles, Thrift and his staff set goals for improving various components of the club - infield defense, for example - and Thrift will be judging the team's success based on the sum total of those projects.

"Everyone has their own opinion and goals and objectives, and I certainly respect that," Thrift said when told of Angelos' comments. "When people say to me, `How many games do you expect the team to win?' my reply is, `Ask the players.'

"The players will tell you how many games they'll win. And the manager and the coaching staff will tell you how many games they'll win. I don't want to put any floors or ceilings on the team. It's their call."

Thrift has one year remaining on his contract, and manager Mike Hargrove has two years remaining on his.

Angelos didn't issue any ultimatums. With regard to Thrift, Angelos said: "I think he's done a very credible job. The acquisitions of [Jay] Gibbons, [Geronimo] Gil and some others demonstrate that he has a keen eye for talent. And he has made a substantial contribution to the betterment of the team since he's been in charge."

Asked if he felt he made the right decision hiring Hargrove before the 2000 season, Angelos said: "Some people might say I finally made a right decision."

Angelos, Thrift, Hargrove and all the Orioles are entering a new chapter in their first season since Cal Ripken's retirement. By not adding any big-ticket players through free agency or trade, they might have trouble maintaining their streak of consecutive seasons drawing 3 million fans. Take away the strike-shortened 1994 season, and the Orioles have surpassed the 3 million mark every year since Camden Yards opened in 1992. But last year's average attendance of 38,686 was their lowest in the new ballpark.

"My information is that ticket sales, across Major League Baseball, are not what they were last year at this point in time," Angelos said. "And to a degree, that is true of our sales, based on the last reports I received. So there could be a drop from the 3 million that we had last year.

"On the other hand, if this team plays to the level that we're all hoping it can reach, I think probably we would hit the 3 million mark again."

To reach .500, the Orioles will need to win 18 more games than they did last season, which would be the third-best turnaround in franchise history. In 1992, they were 89-73 after going 67-95 one year earlier. In their "Why Not?" season of 1989, they went 87-75 after finishing 54-107 the previous year.

The Orioles have finished fourth in the American League East in each of the past four seasons, but climbing to .500 could also mean a climb in the standings. Last year, the Toronto Blue Jays finished third in the East with an 80-82 record.

"I'm optimistic," Angelos said. "But I must say, we need to play better, obviously, than we did last year. And I'm hoping that it will be a substantial degree better."

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