In the credit department, time to give Thrift a nod

May 08, 2002|By Mike Preston

FEW WANT TO salute Syd Thrift because he has been criticized for so long. But he deserves some props. Go ahead, raise your champagne glass and give him a little toast. So far, the Orioles are a lot better than most of us thought they'd be.

Instead of watching another rerun of Gilligan's Island or waiting for the Ravens' training camp to open in late July, there is some renewed interest in Syd's Baby Birds. Fans shouldn't get delirious and expect a championship, but at least some prospects are starting to emerge on the roster.

Like pitcher Jorge Julio, outfielders Jay Gibbons and Gary Matthews and catcher Geronimo Gil. All brought in by Thrift.

The critics, with some validity, will say that the Orioles' 17-16 record is cushioned by wins over the Kansas City Royals, but there is a chemistry that's developing on this team that hasn't been around for years. And it's more than just coincidental it is happening now that Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson have departed.

"I always like to refer to it as spirit when players get together as a unit, support each other, encourage each other and pull for each other," said Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. "We saw it in spring training, and you can hear it from the players."

It's hard to predict where the Orioles will finish this season. One day they look like contenders; the next day they look like a minor-league team. The inconsistent play is a product of youth.

But it's fun to watch Matthews' speed and him diving headfirst into third for a triple. Or Jorge Julio uncorking that 99-mph fastball. Or Gibbons crushing another home run.

The Orioles began the season 1-6, but, after last night's 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians, are winners of nine of their past 12. They've also won four of their previous five series.

After batting .171 with 16 runs and four home runs in their first seven games, the Orioles have won 16 of their past 26 while batting .270 with 135 runs and 31 home runs. Their pitchers have a 4.26 ERA.

They even have a bullpen now with Buddy Groom, B.J. Ryan and Rick Bauer.

It would be nice if the Orioles played the Royals every night, but that's not what this season is about.

It's about Julio, Matthews, Gil and Mora, all players Thrift traded for. It's about Gibbons, a Rule 5 player, and third baseman Tony Batista, whom Thrift claimed off waivers. And minor-league free agents such as pitchers Willis Roberts and Rodrigo Lopez, and outfielder Marty Cordova, another Thrift acquisition in the off-season.

So far, Thrift and the Orioles have done OK. Let's give him a little love.

"I don't feel slightly vindicated because I never felt guilty," Thrift said. "I just recognized, and still realize that this is going to be a difficult year for us. I've said from the very beginning that we have some very fine players here. They're just young. They don't have a track record. They have to establish themselves.

"We've still got a lot of work to do. We need some things, but most of all, we need time to settle in. But we want to keep going the way we're going. We need to get Jason Johnson back on the mound. We need to get David Segui healthy and see what he is going to be able to do."

Thrift said he doesn't expect the team to make any trades before the July 31 deadline.

"Right now, we're prepared to go forward with what we've done," he said. "We're going to give players in Rochester and Bowie time to develop. We want to stay within the house if we possibly can. I don't see anything right now, but that can all change between now and July 31."

The Orioles seem to have found a blend of veteran leadership and youth. In the past, Cal and Brady led by example on the field. But this is no longer Cal's team. It's just a team.

"When we went through spring training, it started to gel," said Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' bullpen coach. "We just ran into a buzz saw at the beginning of the season with the Yankees, Boston and Chicago, who had been playing pretty good ball.

"But when we left spring training, I felt pretty good about our ballclub. I liked our pitching and defense. That's how you win games. We're not a strikeout team, but our defense was good enough to make our pitching look good.

"The veterans did a very good job - the Jeff Conines, the Mike Bordicks, the Seguis - of taking the younger guys under their wings. They showed them how we did things. Cal and Brady did that when they were here, but it was more on the field.

"It's different this year. The older guys do things with them - take them out to dinner, to the movies, to different places. They are more relaxed, more comfortable because these guys have put their arms around them."

Hendricks is a diplomat.

Ripken and Anderson reportedly stayed in different hotels from the rest of the players. They had privileges other players didn't. With them gone, the wall has been broken down.

"We have to do a lot more teaching, and you're hoping you're not spitting in the wind," Hendricks said. "The teaching has become more subtle now. Hopefully, these guys will grow faster than we expect. In two or three years, you look for them to hit maturity. It's a big step, some of them jumping from Double-A to the big leagues."

Lopez said: "I'm just so happy to be with these guys, happy to be in the big leagues. The chemistry is working well. The older guys have been good to us, cheering for us. We're just going to keep working hard because we all know this is a great opportunity."

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