Orioles' future prospects on skid row, too

September 06, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

SO BASEBALL realized a strike would be the most idiotic form of self-immolation and here we sit, one week later, happy that our daily dose of sporting theater has not been denied.

Even here?

Even here at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the local nine - or 31 on the expanded roster - recently relieved itself of a 10-game losing skid, only perhaps to have commenced a new one last night.

All those Texas long balls. Ouch.

It isn't fair, of course. Across the country, a gritty little "small-market" team in green and gold is launching an emphatic assault on baseball's record books. The Oakland A's are happy their season was not cut short.

Still, for longtime Bird-watchers waiting (and waiting) for this Syd Thrift rebuilding experiment to take shape, the losing streak - no matter how demoralizing for the team - seemed to serve as an odd catalyst for renewed interest within Oriole Nation.

You know what they say: Any attention is better than no attention. Outside of a brief flurry that brought the Orioles to 63-63 on Aug. 23, they've provided little incentive this season for sustained interest or enticing headlines, except ones regarding ERAs multiplying faster than snakeheads.

But then came the streak. Ears perked.

If you can't win 20 in a row, like the amazing A's - whose savvy, aggressive, plugged-in general manager, Billy Beane, proves a $40 million payroll is enough to field a contender - then at least there's the intrigue of seeing how far the home team can fall.

For the Orioles, a team so seriously challenged in the star/charisma/talent/depth department, a losing skid can be the poor man's version of entertainment.

Not that the Orioles are poor, which only further confuses people who wonder why this great franchise has slipped dangerously close to the murky depths of Milwaukee, Kansas City and Tampa Bay.

It makes you long for the past, when the Orioles - at least in the hazy rearview mirror of memory - were the Orioles.

There was "The Oriole Way." There were incarnations of greatness between those World Series seasons that made Memorial Stadium one of the greatest ballparks in the big leagues and the Orioles a dynasty worthy of envy.

Or it makes you yearn for the future - which at least some veteran players think isn't going to be as bland or pulverized as the present, despite the fact that the organization boasts no five-tool studs ready to be the next Cal Ripken.

Think of it: With Orioles prospect Larry Bigbie aspiring to be the next Marty Cordova (a respectable hitter, but no franchise cornerstone), it has been two decades since the Orioles drafted and developed a front-line position player.

Waiting for Godot didn't seem this long.

Also, not since Mike "I Wanted to Stay in Baltimore" Mussina have the Orioles delivered a home-grown ace - no offense to Sidney Ponson.

"It's hard for fans to be patient when in the past ownership brought in free agents to plug in all the holes," said first baseman David Segui, whose injured wrist cost the Orioles' offense and bottom line this season.

"But this team is going to be good. We've got some good arms coming up. A couple of these guys can hit. Jay Gibbons has good power. How fast they can develop into consistent players will make a difference."

It says in the Orioles' media guide that Thrift, the fourth GM type since Peter Angelos took control of the team, has commenced a "dynamic overhaul of the club's 40-man roster."

Unless the dictionary carries a new definition of the word "dynamic," there seems to be a schism between what the Orioles say they're doing and what is actually being done.

The club has zig-zagged as much as any in the major leagues in an attempt to manage its farm system and use of free agency. That's particularly true over the past two seasons, when the "dynamic overhaul" (purge of high-priced free agents) started.

In theory, minimizing dependence on free agents is good - if you have someone like Beane wheeling and dealing or a bevy of front-line prospects, the way Cleveland did in the mid-'90s with Manny Ramirez, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton and Albert Belle.

Certainly the Orioles have been crushed by injuries to Belle, Segui, Mike Bordick and Jeff Conine. And Thrift has been credited for bringing in guys like Gary Matthews and Geronimo Gil and for bringing back Bordick. But the overhaul, nonetheless, has created a charisma vacuum.

"You can't get rid of players like Rafael Palmeiro or Robbie Alomar and expect anything else than what's happening now," pitcher Scott Erickson said.

"I can't give up. You don't get that option. I came back here [by signing a contract extension] because I wanted to be here. These are great baseball fans. It was such a great place to play in front of 40,000 people. Besides, we were winners - before they dumped everybody.

"But I'm not demoralized. We've been in a tailspin since Davey Johnson left. Hopefully, we can turn things around. Mike Hargrove is starting to do that. I think next year we should, with a couple of key additions. I've seen stranger things happen. I was in Minnesota and we finished in last place one year and won the World Series the next."

Optimism like that is a wonderful thing, except if it's delusional.

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