In a difficult time, Orioles show class, reason for hope

February 22, 2003|By Laura Vecsey | Laura Vecsey,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The balmy air wafting through Orioles training camp carried something new yesterday: laughter, and a quick eruption of cheers.

It sounded strange and out of place, considering the tragic events of the past week, when 23-year-old pitcher Steve Bechler died. Then again, it sounded good, or at least like the natural progression back toward regular life.

"This is how we work through things," veteran Jeff Conine said. "We do what we do. That helps us get over it."

David Segui was on first base, gobbling up dozens of grounders at the end of early infield practice. Good to see Segui so engaged, so lean, so healthy again. He won't turn the Orioles into World Series contenders, but his bat could realign the Orioles' lineup enough so when they do make that trade we're all waiting for, they likely won't fade into another horrendous offensive drought like they did last year when the wheels fell off.

On the final grounder aimed at him, Segui suddenly turned and threw to infielder Brian Roberts at second base. Roberts put down a phantom tag on a phantom runner before delivering the ball back to Segui for a mock double play.

Under the mostly sunny sky, on a practice field hidden behind Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the entire squad of about 30 Orioles position players chirped and clapped with glee. This is a ritual these guys are comfortable with, unlike a memorial service, grieving for a fallen teammate and coroner's reports. It was working the way it was supposed to.

"It's a gradual process but today's workouts were the best workouts we've had," manager Mike Hargrove said. "The energy was high. You heard the laughter as we ran the infield drills. A couple of good plays got people pumped up. We haven't heard that around here in a while."

The crispness of Segui's play - the rush of adrenaline that accompanies surprisingly inspired execution - seemed to bring out things the Orioles are going to need this season: focus, attention to detail, a sense of teamwork and communication. These characteristics are being stressed by new baseball operations VPs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, who want to start this spring in such a way that everyone - particularly the coaches, players and fans - understands that this is an organization on its way back up. Or, at least it has hit bottom and now it's time to fix the foundation.

"Even the owner ... we want him to look out from his office and be proud of what we've put on the field," Beattie said. "We want the fans to be proud and the players to wear the colors of the Baltimore Orioles with pride, the orange and the black."

As a barometer for the way things are going to work for the "new" Orioles, no one in their right mind could conceive that the death of a young pitcher would emerge as a tragic but perhaps galvanizing event for an organization that desperately seeks to reconnect with its proud past while building toward a more pleasing future.

But here it is: One week into spring training, the Orioles have made all the right moves handling Bechler's sudden death, not to mention the intense media attention now rightly focused on the use and safety of the dietary supplement ephedra. The Orioles might have found themselves at the center of this storm, but the rings are slowly but surely moving away from them, leaving the supplement issue on the doorstep of the players union, the owners and the Food and Drug Administration, which should pull unregulated substances containing ephedrine from the market.

The Orioles are not shying away from adding insight and some controversy to the ephedra debate. As Beattie said, he didn't know so many players were using ephedra not just for weight loss but as a stimulant and as a substitute for illegal amphetamines.

"There will be another chapter with ephedrine," said Beattie, but it won't likely be the Orioles who supply the next round of banner headlines.

The Orioles held news conferences. They stuck Bechler's friend and teammate Matt Riley in front of the medical examiner and reporters to explain that he only threw away Bechler's bottle of diet pills out of anger and frustration over seeing Bechler so sick from them. It was an honest mistake that complicated things, Riley said, defusing a tense situation.

If the Orioles of the past five seasons were mired in anything, it was a lack of communication, a lack of organizational pride, a lack of top-to-bottom accountability, trust and respect.

If the Orioles of last September's dismal losing streak and slide into oblivion proved anything, it was that nothing was working. The organization's chain of command was too rusted and broken to even give the appearance of functionality.

It might be terrible to think that something as horrible as Bechler's death has given the Orioles an opportunity to so quickly demonstrate that they are operating under a new, better system, but this is what can be easily perceived, even after one day at training camp.

"I think Mike and I want to hire good people and let them do their jobs, not get in their way. You hate to trivialize a situation like the one we faced this week, but we've seen the results of people pulling together," Beattie said. "It's like what [Frederick pitching coach] Scottie McGregor said to the team [during the memorial service for Bechler,] and again, I hate to trivialize, but often it's those bad hops that turn into great plays.

"A lot of people around here stepped up."

And now, with drills to run and the season to prepare for, the Orioles - with much work ahead to rebuild their organization - are stepping forward.

You get the sense that obstacles and trouble within this organization might indeed be overcome. After all, what's fixing the minor leagues or instilling a new sense of discipline and accountability after you've sent one of your young players tragically off with admirable kindness, decisiveness and care?

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