Mr. Angelos, let the O's live up to their legacy

March 31, 2002|By Kurt Rheinheimer

ROANOKE, Va. - I was eight when the Orioles came to town, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

People told me I was a precocious third-grader, reading the paper every day, listening to the radio for hours at a time. I was not, of course.

I was simply one fan among a million others, so proud to be a part of the crowd at Memorial Stadium, of the reborn pair of beautiful big-league words that now defined my hometown: Baltimore Orioles.

And yes, nearly everything in the world has changed since 1954. By some quirks of impossible fate, I am now more than 50 years old, Gus Triandos nearly 72. Memorial Stadium is gone, Johnny Unitas has a shriveled right hand, Baltimore industrial giants like the Glenn L. Martin Company and Bethlehem Steel are vestigial at best.

But what never changed - through the losing years of the '50s, the unfulfilled promise of the early '60s, the magnificence of the late '60s through the mid-'80s and the one-step-up, two-steps-back since - was that my boy-born, involuntary devotion never wavered. The same as so many people, whether we moved 1,000 miles away or still lived out along Eastern Avenue, say, where the Bawlmer accent never changed much either.

For those many years, if I had trouble falling asleep at night, I could lie there and think back over the unbroken tradition of excellence at most any position. Bob Boyd to Jim Gentile to Lee May to Eddie Murray to Rafael Palmiero at first. Look at the shortstops: Willie Miranda, Ron Hansen, Luis Aparicio, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken.

And for all the years after Brooks Robinson first came up in 1955 until the end of the 2001 season, there was a homegrown Orioles future Hall of Famer on the field: Robinson, Palmer, Murray, Ripken, Mussina - in an unbroken arc from the O's farm system to Cooperstown. The nearly unbroken record of excellence from the '60s through the '80s prompted the characterization of the Orioles by that literary Yankee-lover Roger Angell as "the dominant American League team of our time."

But by then cracks began to appear. After Edward Bennett Williams' death, New Yorker Eli Jacobs did little to reverse the trend that had already begun: the crumbling of the Oriole Way and the flow of fine pitchers and infielders through the farm system.

Then came a day of joy in the fall of '93 when ownership came back home to Baltimore for the first time since '79. And you, Peter Angelos, you were not just a Baltimorean, but an East Baltimorean, who talked the same way the rest of us who grew up there do. Or try not to.

I knew that day we were on our way back to the top. You had a false start or two, but then you brought in one of the great old Orioles in Davey Johnson, and things looked good. And maybe but for the Jeffrey Maier catch in Yankee Stadium, things might have stayed on course.

But the truth is, things have done anything but.

Four seasons after winning the AL East under Davey Johnson - and it feels so much longer ago - we've come to this: a broken, fully uninspired "team" with no star, no focal point, no hope and very little to watch for down on the farm.

Where those few years ago the infield was graced with Palmeiro, Alomar, Ripken and Surhoff, we can now look forward to the journeyman David Segui, the failed-hope Jerry Hairston, the 37-year-old Mike Bordick and the waiver pickup Tony Batista.

We can look for a team whose best player is a thoroughly competent, hard-working fourth outfielder, where the new hype to save the pitching changes every week, where front office savvy has been replaced with little more than CYA, where the smooth, beautiful play-by-play voice of Jon Miller still echoes faintly beneath the unctuous, grating honk of Michael Reghi.

The great honor and tradition of Orioles baseball is in your hands, Mr. Angelos. A big chunk of the identity of the city that you and I call home rests under your ineffectual control. On behalf of those millions of us who are cursed/blessed, who have spent all our lives loving the best baseball franchise in the world - do something.

Hire a real general manager, hire someone who understands a farm system, someone who understands who the Orioles were and must be again.

Or move along.

Kurt Rheinheimer was born and grew up in Middle River. He maintains his incurable love of the home team from Roanoke, Va., where he is editor of Blue Ridge Country magazine.

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