ANAHEIM, Calif. - With the Orioles reaching the midpoint of their season last night, club owner Peter Angelos told The Sun he is pleased with the team's progress and said sometimes maligned vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift "is here to stay."
In a wide-ranging half-hour phone interview from his Baltimore law offices, Angelos said he is still committed to adding players through free agency this off-season. And having declared .500 as the team's goal heading into the season, Angelos said he thinks the club can actually finish better than that.
Asked whether he thinks the Orioles are close to becoming playoff contenders, Angelos said it's tough to say. "But from a reasonably optimistic standpoint, I would say yes," he said. "I'm not saying in the immediate future, in the next 80-some games. I'm talking about next year, in particular, and certainly in the year after that."
The Orioles are 39-42 and have generally been considered one of baseball's surprises after finishing 63-98 a year ago. Despite losing David Segui, Jeff Conine and Jason Johnson for stretches on the disabled list, the Orioles have spent more than two months in third place after finishing fourth in the American League East for four straight years.
Thrift has been under more scrutiny during the final year of his contract, but several of the players he brought into the organization have flourished. That list includes All-Star third baseman Tony Batista, closer Jorge Julio, reliever Willis Roberts, catcher Geronimo Gil, outfielders Gary Matthews and Jay Gibbons, along with rookie starting pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill, who are a combined 12-4.
"Syd is here to stay," Angelos said. "He's not going anywhere. Based on his performance, obviously he has earned the right to continue in that position. There's a very formidable group of players that he's acquired at very little cost dollar-wise or player-wise. He's done an excellent job."
Angelos said he will likely handle contract discussions with Thrift after the season. Thrift, who accompanied the team to Anaheim, said the contract has not been on his mind. "I'm always so absorbed in my work," he said, "I try not to spend time thinking about that."
When told of Angelos' comments, Thrift said: "It's always rewarding for anyone when your energy and your work are appreciated. I think it was Woodrow Wilson who said you should always leave a place better than you found it. That's always been a goal of mine."
Orioles manager Mike Hargrove is under contract through the end of next season. Asked this spring whether he made the right decision hiring Hargrove in 1999, Angelos said, "Some people might say I finally made a right decision."
Yesterday, Angelos said he has been impressed with this team's competitive streak.
"There's been an ingredient this season, which many people believe was lacking in prior teams that were more successful than this group," Angelos said. "It's the kind of attitude real baseball fans look for in a team."
By not adding any big-ticket players through free agency or trade last off-season - Marty Cordova was the biggest for three years at $9.1 million - the Orioles wanted to find out what their core group of young players could accomplish before making more of a free-agent push.
Asked whether he's ready to spend more this off-season, Angelos said, "Yes, but of course, we will not get involved in contracts we think are inconsistent with the economics of baseball."
Angelos, who is part of the owners' negotiating team trying to work out a new labor agreement with the players association, declined to comment on those talks.
With the non-waiver trade deadline coming July 31, the Orioles must decide whether to trade the likes of pitchers Sidney Ponson and Scott Erickson.
"There's a great deal of reluctance to tamper with this team in any way," Angelos said. "It is an exciting team to watch, but I wouldn't rule that out. If there's a chance to improve the ballclub, then obviously we'll move in that direction. But we won't do anything that's frivolous, or we won't be attempting moves that reduce the payroll."
Predictably, the Orioles' attendance has been down in their first season without Cal Ripken. After drawing at least 3 million fans in each of their first nine full seasons at Camden Yards, the Orioles are on pace to draw 2.79 million.
Angelos, who opposes the idea of Major League Baseball relocating a franchise to Washington, emphasized the point again yesterday.
"We're getting a lot of strong, strong interest from our fans in the Washington metropolitan area, which has been part of our fan base for some 40 years," he said. "We're not surrendering them to anyone or any other franchise."
Angelos said he flew into Reagan International Airport on Tuesday and was greeted by two police officers who wanted to talk about the Orioles.
"They certainly didn't say anything about hoping they had a baseball team [in Washington]," Angelos said. "The way they were talking to me, they have a baseball team. It's the Orioles."