To stop fall, O's must turn over leaf

October 01, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - It only makes matters worse that the free fall of the Orioles proved to be yet another advantage for the New York Yankees.

As if these reigning kings of the American League East needed any more advantages.

Tonight, the 2002 baseball playoffs that were supposed to be crushed by a labor war begin.

Aren't we lucky? We get a World Series after all, something to keep us busy through so much of football season that by the time this thing's over, the Terrapins will be defending their national collegiate basketball title and Michael Jordan will be having his knees drained.

Baseball is nothing if not a wonderful diversionary tactic.

"It's amazing that people of normal or slightly more intelligence get so obsessed with a little ball with stitches on it," Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations, said yesterday.

Yet not all the news in baseball is thrilling and full of goose-fleshed autumnal anticipation.

What's the mood this morning, Baltimore?

Is it all dread and foul-natured? Or can you catch some good vibes off a postseason that brings us the Twins and the Athletics - two franchises that aren't supposed to be able to compete in this troubled industry, one of which was on "commissioner" Bud Selig's contraction list?

The truth is out, now that it is October.

No more excuses for poor management in franchises where ticket sales and cable revenues are steady. Not when Minnesota and Oakland are still alive, deep and strong enough to believe themselves capable of World Series rings, just like the Yankees.

As the prime-time TV cameras fixate tonight on this dynasty in the Bronx, it must be noted that the Yankees earned home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series courtesy of the Orioles.

By yielding their final three games to the barnstorming Yankees, the plummeting Orioles granted the richest, most victorious franchise in baseball the right to seize psychological ownership, yet again, of these October proceedings.

Someone should pay.

Easy for me to say.

However, it is much better than that, if you take to heart the vague rumblings out of Camden Yards, where Thrift appears to be waving the white flag on his three-year attempt to turn the Orioles from a win-now free-agent powerhouse into an alleged youth movement.

The one-time disciple of Branch Rickey tried to display humor, even as he implied that blame for the Orioles' dismal state should be spread far and wide.

"Here it seems to be that I've been selected or elected to be the whipping boy, whereas in Chicago, where they had equally as bad a record as we have, they've fired two managers. But that's just the tale of two cities, isn't it?" Thrift said.

He said the trouble started two weeks ago when owner Peter Angelos confirmed manager Mike Hargrove and the Orioles' coaching staff would return in 2003. The absence of a vote of confidence for Thrift left him open to heavy attack, one that has raged on radio and in newspapers as the Orioles continued their season-ending 4-32 slide.

"It doesn't bother me, though," Thrift said. "I can't lose in this. If these stories about me have been to sell papers, well, then, I'm a stockholder in the Tribune Company [owner of The Sun]. I worked for them for three years, so I have a few shares."

Clearly, though, the Orioles' travails are no laughing matter.

During the Orioles' final regular-season series against the Yankees, Thrift apparently succumbed to a steady onslaught of criticism, saying that, at age 73, it might be time to spend more time with his wife and family.

After an entire life dedicated to baseball - one in which Thrift's wife, Dolly, urged him to jump after they had created their own business successes - it might be a little late for that kind of talk.

Besides, with a franchise being crushed by charges of systemic disarray from sources inside and outside the organization, Thrift has no choice but to acknowledge, finally, that drastic changes are needed.

"I have to find a way to work less," he said. "We need more help. A lot of different things are bogged down. You need a lot of different people to maximize their energy. Maybe we need new people, find people who have high energy, enthusiasm and good judgment and who can make things happen.

"We might have two new people or one person, whatever. Maybe we have to maximize people in proper roles."

For critics who contend the Orioles have lacked structure and a plan, Thrift did little to alleviate those suspicions. He had no specific details about ways to bolster minor-league instruction, player development, scouting, injury prevention, free-agent negotiations, arbitration.

The more he listed aspects of franchise management that have fallen off, the more urgent it seems that the Orioles need a profound, system-wide overhaul.

Because Thrift and Angelos have been each other's greatest allies, it will be interesting to see if Angelos and/or Thrift is willing to dramatically and drastically expand the circle of influence over club management in the name of saving the Orioles from further ruin.

It needs to be done. Now.

Judging by the contenders in this postseason, when either the Twins or Athletics will play in the AL Championship Series, it is already alarmingly late for the Orioles to get back in the game.

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