THE OWNER of the Orioles is going to hire a new man to run the show, but guess who's down in Tucson, Ariz., attending the general managers meetings in the name of Peter Angelos?
Here's a very big hint:
What vice president for baseball operations once said that the club's inability to attract free agents to Baltimore made it seem as if the Orioles were trying to hand out "Confederate money"?
What a classic line. It should go on a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Then again, Syd Thrift is the same 50-year baseball veteran who can utter phrases such as, "We ain't playin' no game of country round cat" and live to run another franchise.
"I think he's done an excellent job, and he's put together the nucleus of a team that will be a winner in the near future," Angelos said yesterday.
"Syd's taken some hits in the media, but he hasn't from me, like when it was said that he had responsibility for a very poor won-lost record in that last month, that that should have been visited upon him. Or that there are issues with the minor-league system. We know why and how that happened, and we all have to take responsibility. Everyone, including ownership, has to take the blame for that," Angelos said.
Orioles fans can only hope, however, that Thrift's notoriously truthful and entertaining proclamation about free agents coming to Baltimore is no longer true. If it is true, if baseball's small class of free agents this winter doesn't want any part of Orioles money, then what about that Opening Day lineup we're sitting here dreaming up?
Thrift, ready to make deals in the desert this week despite his imminent departure from his post, sparked that most coveted feeling in all of baseball: hope.
If we suspend reality, sobriety, cynicism and judgment (who cares? it's November!), we're left little option but to consider the possibility that the Orioles' Opening Day lineup might look something like this:
Paul Byrd or Woody Williams on the mound. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez behind the plate. Big Jim Thome at first. Edgardo Alfonzo (sorry, Jerry Hairston) at second. Mike Bordick at short. David Bell at third. Cliff Floyd, Gary Matthews and Melvin Mora in the outfield. Jeff Conine at designated hitter.
Playoff tickets are going on sale soon. Watch out, you weird little Rally Monkey.
This is the kind of heady, euphoric, unrealistic thinking that can happen on a day like today. Other than Opening Day, when all teams are contenders (even the Cubs), today is the greatest day in baseball for all fans.
Today, teams can talk money to free agents for the first time. Today, the market for this year's free-agent class will begin to be established. It might take until mid-December to sort itself out, but the possibility of making a deal is what drives the thrill meter on this fateful day.
Every free agent might possibly wind up on your team, which is pretty much what Thrift made it sound like when he discussed the laundry list of free agents in which the Orioles have interest.
In fact, with what Angelos estimates is $50 million of payroll on the books, he said the Orioles are willing to push that payroll up toward an area more commensurate with teams such as the Angels (15th at about $62 million).
Rodriguez's back trouble should be a concern (the Rangers think so), and Thome is going to be offered Scott Rolen dollars from desperately eager Philadelphia, so that severely narrows the field of potential new Orioles. Still, with guys like left-handed hitter Cliff Floyd and/or innings-eating pitcher Byrd (proven commodities, good values) in the Orioles' viewfinder, we're starting to forget the bitter taste of that September slide.
Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Lauderdale in a little more than 90 days. Suddenly, the Orioles are projecting the image of a team with some buzz.
The news that the Orioles want to get into the free-agent market in a big way does us another good bit of service. It distracts us from the bigger issue of who will be the Orioles' new vice president - wasn't Mike Flanagan a lock? - and when he will be on board.
Angelos said Thrift isn't a lame duck, he's doing the job that needs to be done, yet there is no mistaking the fact that the Orioles, like the Red Sox, need to get their new leader in place - the sooner the better, especially before the winter meetings in mid-December.
The interview process and lack of announcement about Thrift's so-called retirement has all the earmarks of another weird way in which funky ol' baseball conducts its business.
It's funny, but for a game so orderly and neat, baseball presents us with so much mischief and strangeness. Angelos said it was a consensus decision that Thrift is moving toward retirement, yet Angelos also affirmed that it is his club, he makes the ultimate call on all personnel matters and that Thrift's future with the Orioles in whatever capacity (other than his current position) was still under consideration.
It's tough to anticipate who and what will be heading to Florida in a few months, but at least there's this: 2003 holds the promise of being a little different, hopefully a little better.
Isn't this kind of hope what November is all about?