First pitch in a new era

With Ripken gone, rebuilding Orioles search for identity

Strong spring bodes well

Pitching, defense are keys to avoiding 5th losing year in row

April 01, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Iron Man is gone now. The Orioles' identity has changed.

They will open the center-field fence at Camden Yards today and introduce players onto that long strip of orange carpeting. For the first time in 21 years, however, Cal Ripken won't come running with them.

"I have tried all winter to prepare for that," said Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' longtime bullpen coach. "But when you don't see him come flying out of the fence like a teen-ager, that's the time it'll all hit home really.

"Words cannot describe what it'll be like until it actually happens."

Ripken's farewell tour ended months ago, and now the next chapter in Orioles history officially begins. Even with the bunting hanging and the New York Yankees in town for Opening Day, the average fan might start longing for yesteryear with No. 8.

But for the Orioles themselves, this is a group that had plenty of time for soul searching during seven weeks of spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"You walk around wondering where Cal is," said manager Mike Hargrove. "You miss a guy like him. You miss his ability, obviously, but you miss his humor. You miss his input. You miss his intelligence. You miss all of that.

"Once you finally have it figured out that Cal's not coming, then you've got to move on and start looking at what you do have. We don't have a whole lot of big names -- we don't. We've got some good veteran players, and we've got some good young players, and I don't think the way we played in spring training is an aberration."

The Orioles went 20-9-1 in exhibition play, setting a franchise record for spring victories and posting the best record in the American League. That counts for nothing in the actual standings, but Hargrove took stock in the way those victories mounted: good pitching, good defense.

Those are things Hargrove didn't see much toward the end of last season. The Orioles finished 63-98, marking their fourth consecutive year in fourth place. Add those seasons together, and the Orioles finished a combined 101 games behind the Yankees.

For Orioles fans, at least there was Ripken. And this afternoon, he'll be watching, just like the rest of them. Ripken plans to attend the game with his family, his spokesman John Maroon said, watching either from his suite or his front-row seats.

"Ever since I was here, Cal was the draw," said shortstop Mike Bordick, who first came to the club in 1997. "For so long, he certainly was the definition of the Orioles. When you talked about the Orioles, it was just Cal.

"We do have to make an identity as a team. Hopefully, it'll be as just one solid unit, doing the right things and playing the game right."

The Orioles played the game right this spring. Leadoff man Jerry Hairston reached base at a .400 clip. Scott Erickson, today's starting pitcher, looked strong in his comeback from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Mike Bordick was up to his old tricks at shortstop.

Those were concerns coming into camp, and there are plenty more going into the season.

Can David Segui stay healthy? A year ago, he played just 82 games, and he missed close to two weeks this spring because of a strained right Achilles' tendon. When healthy, Segui is the Orioles' best pure hitter. Without him last season, they went 25-54.

Will Sidney Ponson blossom? The scouts have their doubts, but most agree he still has No. 1 stuff. Bothered by forearm tendinitis a year ago, Ponson went 5-10. As the July 31 trade deadline nears, the Orioles will be making constant assessments about his future.

Another player on the spot is Jay Gibbons, who had 15 home runs last year in just 225 at-bats. Hargrove made him the starting right fielder, and the team can't wait to see what he'll do over a full season.

Gibbons and Hairston, both 25, aren't the only young players who will fill key roles. Jorge Julio, 23, posted four saves and a 0.69 ERA this spring. If he carries that into the season, he will likely be ordained as the team's new closer.

"There are times where we're going to look really, really ugly and dumb," Hargrove said. "The trick is to keep those instances real short and the times we play well fairly lengthy.

"We've got smart guys, and we've got some talent on this ballclub. We don't have a whole lot of room for error."

Owner Peter Angelos has said he expects this team to finish at least .500. Such a feat would end the Orioles' streak of a club-record four consecutive losing seasons but would also require the third-best turnaround in franchise history.

Hargrove didn't put a number on his expectations.

"Suffice it to say that our expectations are higher for ourselves than what other people are expecting out of us," Hargrove said. "Though Mr. Angelos might have come close."

Another number to watch is the attendance figure at Camden Yards. The Orioles have drawn 3 million every year they've played there - except the strike-shortened season of 1994 - and without Ripken, that streak could be in jeopardy.

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